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Google To Use Blimps To Bring Broadband To Africa And Asia

One of the biggest problems faced in bringing the Internet to poorer parts of the world is the fact that these areas lack the infrastructure necessary to bring high-speed internet access to the people, specifically the network of above and below ground wires that bring the Internet to the homes of millions of Americans and Europeans. Rather than spending billions of dollars to hardwire poor parts of Africa and Asia, Google is looking to the skies:

Search giant Google is intending to build huge wireless networks across Africa and Asia, using high-altitude balloons and blimps.

The company is intending to finance, build and help operate networks from sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia, with the aim of connecting around a billion people to the web.

To help enable the campaign, Google has been putting together an ecosystem of low-cost smartphones running Android on low-power microprocessors. Rather than traditional infrastructure, Google’s signal will be carried by high-altitude platforms – balloons and blimps – that can transmit to areas of hundreds of square kilometres.

Google has also considered using satellites to achieve the same goal. “There’s not going to be one technology that will be the silver bullet,” an unnamed source told the Wall St Journal. A Google spokesperson declined to comment.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, Google lobbyists are targeting regulators across developing countries to allow them to use airwaves currently reserved for television broadcasts – which operate at lower frequencies and can therefore penetrate buildings and travel longer distances than current WiFi technology.

Small-scale trials are underway in Cape Town, South Africa, where a base station is broadcasting signals to wireless access boxes in high schools over several kilometres. Software detects which areas of the spectrum aren’t being used for TV broadcast and can be used for the network at any given time.

It’s a fascinating solution to a hard problem, for sure, and if it works then it’s going to have a tremendous effect on roughly a billion people.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Barry says:

    Wow. And the part about jumping to unused parts of the spectrum might matter more, if it’s allowed.

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  2. DC Loser says:

    This is the future in a world where access to space is expensive and risky. Putting a geostationary satellite to do the same would be orders of magnitude more expensive to do. Google would probably need about 2 or 3 such airships to fly in shifts to maintain an acceptable level of service.

    Similarly, the military is going to have to look at such arrangements with airships and UAVs to act as backups or replacements to communications satellites like MILSTAR, which are going to be more and more vulnerable to physical attack from ASATs and jamming.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Google’s signal will be carried by high-altitude platforms – balloons and blimps – that can transmit to areas of hundreds of square kilometres.

    It will take a lot more than three aircraft. It will take a fleet.

    Consider that just to accommodate an area the size of Rhode Island (~3,000 square kilometers) hundreds would be required. There won’t need to be shifts because they’ll be drones but they will need operators and ground stations.

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  4. DC Loser says:

    I’m not a radio engineer, but from the formulas here, an airship at 60,000 ft can cover an area of 374,558 sq. miles.

    r= 1.41 * (60,000)^0.5
    A= 3.14 r^2

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  5. Dave Schuler says:

    The only way I can reconcile that with what’s reported in the article cited is to speculate that they’re talking about a significantly lower altitude. The coverage area increases rapidly with altitude.

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  6. DC Loser says:

    They would want sometning that would fly above the weather. At least above 40k ft to avoid thunderstorms.

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  7. rudderpedals says:

    This is a cool idea. This will not survive weather though, it’ll be shredded if it’s not reeled in well before a thunderstorm. Surviving that it’ll soon be an ex-balloon anyway once the lightning gets done with it.

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  8. Dave Schuler says:

    To the best of my knowledge blimps have a maximum altitude of about 10,000 ft. Balloons with moderate payloads and with high expected longevity could make it that high.

    There’s an interesting paper here.

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  9. stonetools says:

    I’m glad that Google is thinking outside the box to solving this problem of bringing connectivity to hundreds of millions of people. Good luck to them. My guess is that there is a basic idea that there needs to be refined and tested before it scale up a solution for large numbers of people. Electric power generation started like that. Go Google!

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  10. rudderpedals says:

    @Dave Schuler: The balloon at the .pdf is all kinds of awesome

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  11. DC Loser says:

    Here is one where it goes up to 22,000 ft. I’m sure technology will allow them to go higher.

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  12. @rudderpedals:

    When this internet goes down, it REALLY goes down.

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  13. rudderpedals says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Look at the bright side. If something heavy doesn’t take you out you still have some time after the CARRIER LOST message to hide from the wild flying tether decapitation thingie.

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