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Internet-transmitting space balloons and drones could soon be adding connectivity and appear on users’ wireless networks list. GRAPHIC BY TIM BORITH

Wireless broadband initiatives take to the skies

In separate initiatives to extend broadband internet coverage to every corner of the planet, two of the world’s biggest tech companies are developing ambitious plans to use fleets of balloons and drones to deliver wireless internet to those still off the grid.

Internet giants Alphabet and Facebook are investing in rival efforts to develop high-altitude aerial platforms capable of beaming the internet down to users on the ground, using balloons and drones to deliver wireless connectivity to the developing world.

The tech firms aim to connect the 56 percent of the global population, roughly 4 billion people, who are not yet connected to the internet.

Their experimental flying networks will light up broadband “black-spots”, remote areas underserved by fibre networks and ground-based towers. The experimental technologies are already being tested, and could one day compete with Cambodia’s mobile network operators (MNOs), whose wireless networks handle the vast majority of the country’s internet traffic.

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Facebook’s solar-power-run Aquila technology. FACEBOOK

Alphabet, the holding company formerly known as Google, is already in late-stage development of its Project Loon, which envisions using thousands of high-altitude balloons to create a vast aerial wireless network. The pressurised balloons are designed to float high up into the stratosphere, over 20,000 metres in altitude, carried on by prevailing winds. Each balloon carries a solar-powered electronics platform with a transmitter capable of beaming internet data at 4G LTE speeds to a circular ground area 80 kilometres in diameter.

Winds will keep the balloons in perpetual motion. Rather than fighting it, Alphabet plans to go with the flow. As one balloon sails out of range of ground stations below, another travelling on the same current will move in to take its place, providing a continuous connection to mobile internet users.

Alphabet has been testing its balloons since 2013, and has completed connectivity trials in several countries. It is expected to commence a milestone test in Indonesia by the end of the year, where it has signed an agreement with the country’s three biggest MNOs to integrate balloons into their coverage network – offering a cheaper way for the telcos to deliver internet connectivity to the nation’s 17,000 islands.

The internet space race is on

While Alphabet and Facebook have designs on the stratosphere, they are also taking their ambitions for global internet connectivity even higher.

Facebook is in a space race with O3b Networks, an Alphabet-backed satellite venture, SpaceX, billionaire Elon Musk’s space exploration company, and OneWeb, a satellite project backed by a consortium of deep-pocketed investors. All four have outlined plans to beam down internet from a constellation of satellites in orbit.

Facebook’s Internet.org project suffered a setback when a satellite it planned to use to provide free internet connectivity to large swathes of Africa, exploded on the launchpad last month. But it is clear that low-latency satellite networks will soon be a reality and could add to the list of wireless networks appearing on users’ handsets.

Facebook has its own plan for the stratosphere, with its Project Aquila aiming to deliver internet connectivity using a fleet of solar-powered drones soaring at an altitude of 20,000 to 30,000 metres, far above the flight paths of commercial airlines. The huge unmanned aircraft, which have the wingspan of a Boeing 737, are fitted with radio transmitters and lasers. The drones will circle high in the atmosphere, beaming broadband internet signals to each other and to a circular area below that spans 160 kilometres in diameter.

“When finished, our laser communication system can be used to connect our aircraft with each other and with the ground, making it possible to create a stratospheric network that can extend to even the remotest regions of the world,” Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice president of Global Engineering and Infrastructure, said in a press release.

Scale models of the Aquila drones have been tested, and a full-sized drone completed its maiden flight in July. But Facebook admits it still has a long way to go. The test flight lasted 90 minutes, but the drones are being designed to stay in the air for up to three months at a time – a lofty goal given the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight stands at just two weeks.

Both Alphabet and Facebook have indicated that their new aerial wireless networks are designed to work in tangent with MNOs, beaming down internet signals to the telecom partners’ ground stations for transmission to mobile handsets using the operators’ existing local wireless infrastructure.

However, there is no technical reason it has to. The signals could be received directly by user handsets, or relayed using a conventional Wi-Fi router, according to Marc Einstein, a director of Asia-Pacific mobile and wireless communications for business consultancy Frost & Sullivan.

“The balloons [and drones] are essentially floating base stations, so yes, they can communicate directly with cell phones, or through a router,” he explained. “However, in order to do that, the [aerial network] operator would either have to partner with telcos to use their spectrum (which is why telcos are involved) or use unlicensed spectrum (Wi-Fi, etc).”

If the aerial operator went the Wi-Fi route, it would need government permission to operate as an internet service provider in each country it covers, he added.

Einstein said that from a business standpoint, plummeting cellular prices and the widening use of faster 4G LTE infrastructure make it unlikely that aerial wireless networks will supplant demand for ground-based wireless services. It is more likely that they will function as an extension of these services – providing coverage for emergency use and very remote areas, for example.

“I see this as a niche application and not a significant threat to telcos,” he said.

Suresh Sidhu, CEO of Edotco Group, which operates over 17,000 telecommunications towers in six Asian countries including Cambodia, said aerial networks still have significant technical and logistical hurdles to overcome that will keep them from competing directly with ground-based infrastructure, for now at least.

“In the medium-term, they are probably more complementary, because just like technology today, you’ll probably downlink and then you have to terrestrially radiate to other areas,” he said. “For the terrestrial part, you’ll still need traditional towers.”

He was less enthused about the long-term prospect, noting that eventually aerial platforms “could replace towers altogether, and so as a tower operator we have to consider that.”

If Cambodian MNOs are worried that balloon and drone-based internet platforms could cut into their mobile data revenue – increasingly the bread and butter of their operations – they certainly aren’t showing it.

Laszlo Barta, chief commercial officer of CamGSM Co. Ltd, commercially known as Cellcard, pointed out that the wireless broadband innovations were still at a very early stage of development and unlikely to be deployed in scale here anytime soon.

While he welcomed the potential of these aerial platforms to help carriers reach that last mile of coverage, he said the technologies “may not be needed or will not be viable” in Cambodia’s relatively saturated and affordable mobile internet market.

“In Cambodia, close to 100 percent of the population can already get access to the internet at a very low price level compared to most other markets,” he said. “In a price competitive market with high levels of penetration such as Cambodia, these solutions may be challenging to launch.”

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