Pointless? Google to trial net balloons in Oz



blog The idea of using low-flying balloons to provide broadband connectivity isn’t a new one; it’s been bobbing about in the telecommunications industry for many years. But only very rarely have we seen a company get serious about using the technology. Well, if the disclosure by Google of its ambitious balloon broadband initiative, ‘Project Loon’, this week is any indication, the search giant is about to get very serious indeed about this technology. And better yet, it may even be coming to Australia. The Age reports (we recommend you click here for the full article):

“Google has revealed that it has 30 balloons floating over New Zealand to provide free internet access to disaster-stricken, rural or poor areas. The technology will be trialled in Australia next year, possibly in Tasmania.”

While it’s great to see Google innovating this way, personally I’m pretty dubious about this whole project. With Project Loon reportedly slated to deliver speeds “comparable to 3G”, and Australia already having very solid 3G networks, even in regional and rural locations, plus excellent satellite broadband on the way courtesy of NBN Co (and that’s a bi-partisan aspect of the NBN, don’t forget), one does wonder to what extent any Australian — even in a very remote area — would need to use Project Loon. From the looks of it, the project’s antenna receiving equipment on the ground is a little smaller than your average satellite dish — but it’s still fixed to a building; it’s not precisely the size of a USB dongle yet. What are your thoughts? Is the trial of Project Loon in Australia somewhat pointless? Or could balloon-based broadband have real-life applications?

Image credit: Google


  1. Our 3G networks may be good, but there are still plenty of black spots in rural areas where you can’t get a signal (my uncle’s farm, for instance).

    Plus, your quote mentions disaster stricken areas, so having a technology you could quickly deploy to aid in communications during rescue/relief efforts could go a long way to improving responses in those events.

    Plus, there’s also the basic competition argument. Just because we are having the satellite/fixed wireless aspects of the NBN roll-out under both the ALP and Coalition plans, doesn’t mean that someone, like Google, can’t launch a competing service. In fact, having a service like this available (albeit in limited areas) goes some way to counter the “government internet monopoly” arguments that come with the NBN.

    • Your Uncle will be able to get NBN satellite\wireless

      Also how is having a dish installed during a Disaster helpful during a Disaster ?

      Maybe if it’s as small as a USB dongle then it might be helpful during a disaster

      • not sure when the last time you were actually IN a disaster zone was, but deploying this type of equipment in a disaster wouldn’t be that difficult.

        energy retailers have whole substations/transformers on skids ready to deploy at a moment’s notice to power whole towns.

        i’m sure the deployment of these devices wouldn’t be insurmountable.

        the ability to provide reliable communications in a disaster is extremely important and this type of system may be able to achieve that.

  2. Well it still seems like a bit of a pipe dream.

    But theoretically the gear they are using could deliver good fixed wireless performance… anywhere in their flight path. For a very low cost.

    NBN satellite might be fast and cheap but it still really high up in the sky, so that 600-700ms latency is unavoidable. Loom could theoretically be sub 100ms latency, which for a lot of two way applications would make a difference. It also supports speeds up to 150mbit over that distance, but that would be heavily shared.

    Realistically though the main commercial application of this will be in developing countries with 0 infrastructure. 1mbit speeds with sub 200ms latency will provide huge value to these countries, unlocking applications like basic web browsing and voip which will have huge productivity benefits.

    First they have to launch a couple thousand balloons and get them circling the globe though :P

  3. when will people realise that 3g network coverage might be good in the cities, but STILL is not up to scratch in MANY parts of rural australia. city dwellers should spend a month or two in some of these areas and see how they stack up…

    anything that can help this situation can only be a plus.

  4. There are massive amounts of areas that could benefit from the balloons. Even within a 10 minute drive from Canberra at the Cotter (a popular picnic and swimming spot) there are massive black spots in coverage thanks to the hilly terrain.

    Even ignoring the convenience factor, how about providing emergency internet coverage in regions like Syria, Lybia or Egypt facing civil wars and no access to communicate with the outside world if the government cuts off the net or the infrastructure is destroyed?
    Are the balloons high enough to avoid being shot down by conventional weapons?

    • Any balloon that can float high enough to not be shot down by conventional weapons, is too high to provide a reliable 3G signal.

    • Nothing is high enough to avoid being shot down. Current SAM systems can shoot down satellites in low orbits, so anything within the atmosphere is in the kill zone.

    • On the website it states that the balloons float well above clouds and commercial aeroplanes, at a similar altitude as weather balloons.

  5. Considering they only stay up for around 100 days, and they can’t actually steer them (they are at the mercy of the wind), I’m not sure of the practicality of the project…

    For short term event and disaster scenarios it might be pretty handy though.

    • From what I understand of this area of high atmospheric research the trails being conducted are for the purpose of testing and refining the model they are using for wind pattern and prediction, which should allow them limited, yet useful, control.

      Aa for duration, that’s I expect to improve.

    • http://www.google.com/loon/faq/

      “Loon balloons are also unique in that they are steerable and entirely solar powered. ”

      “A: We are flying in the stratosphere well above commercial air traffic and weather events, at around 18-27 km or 60,000 – 90,000 feet.”

      I suppose they still have to deal with wind, but not storm winds. And it is steerable, so…

  6. I’m not sure how they will get around the uncontrolled descent of a fair bit of mass part (presumably a battery of sorts is going up). Statistical likelihood of donging the citizenry seems poor form.

    • Well, they claim to have that sorted.


      “Q: How will the balloons come down?

      A: We control the balloons by raising and lowering them to an altitude with winds in the direction we’d like them to travel. We plan to take our balloons down over safe recovery zones, and in the event of an unexpected landing all our balloons have parachutes to slow their descent and foam bottoms to cushion the landing.

      Q: How do you collect the balloons after they have landed?

      A: We track our balloons continuously in the air and note their location when they land. Ultimately, we plan to steer the balloons as they descend, so we can direct them to land in various collection points around the world.

      Q: Is there risk of airplanes hitting the balloons?

      A: Our balloons fly almost twice as high as commercial jetliners and so they pose no more of a risk than any of the other 70,000 weather balloons currently launched every year without incident. We coordinate with local air-traffic control when balloons are launched and when they descend. “

      • Uh, also, “entirely solar powered”. There’s obviously a battery but probably not one that would need to last a hundred days.

  7. If the trial is for disaster scenarios it is not pointless at all. If fire crews needed quick access for communication and could send one up and have the ground dish attached to a central vehicle. Or for areas where the landlines go down and mobile towers are congested this may be faster than getting a temporary tower set up.

    • After a bush fire, perhaps. But certainly not during a bushfire.
      Fire services have enough to deal with, without having to deploy interim communications balloons for citizens.
      Having balloons around hot fires is probably not a good idea, as they play havoc with wind currents, that and a hazard to aerial fire bombing.

          • You don’t need to (and you wouldn’t) deploy them at the scene of the disaster – you deploy them into the air elsewhere and ‘steer’ them above that location. Plus if it’s 20km high, I’m assuming it’s also got a pretty broad coverage, so you may not have to move it much if at all. All you’d need to deploy at the scene is a satellite dish on the ground to send and receive data.

  8. Until they can get people in countries like North Korea online then the project isn’t really worth it. The whole point of the balloons is give people internet who can’t access it at the moment. Why can’t they access it, remoteness, or because of their governments. Either way where are they going to be able to access a project loon kit to attach to their house?

    • That’s their stated goal.

      Through your specific example has sociopolitical issues, not technical ones, that may reduce availability.

  9. Yes it does have a use as an alternative for those whose NBN access will be via satellite. The latency for internet access via Project Loon will be much lower than that of a Geostationary orbiting satellite.

    • I have to ask though, from where do the balloons get the Internet connection they are sharing?
      Are they repeaters for satellite connection or some terrestrial longer range wifi?
      Won’t that also increase latency?

      • The ip packets will be relayed between the ballons until it gets to one that can see the closest terrestrial ground station. Yes this will increase the latency somewhat but now where near what you see from a Geostationary satellites. The ballons are only 20kms above the ground while Geostationary satellites are 35,786kms above the earth

  10. Renai wrote:
    “Is the trial of Project Loon in Australia somewhat pointless? Or could balloon-based broadband have real-life applications?”

    Surely the application is little more than enabling more eyeballs to look at Google’s ads?

  11. > Any balloon that can float high enough to not be shot down by conventional weapons, is too high to provide a reliable 3G signal.

    I suspect that the trial was using WiFi for simplicity.

    I don’t think the final version will use 3G technology. The hard bit will be to find spectrum available world-wide, however being high-angle and line-of-site would make the use of microwave (or higher) frequencies possible.

    • Wireless, not WiFi.

      WiFi, implies 802.11. 802.11n on either 2.4 or 5Ghz, ranges up to 250m outdoors.

      These balloons are how far up? Others have mentioned 20Kms.

      • It’s wifi of some description. The pictures of the “Red Bubble” that is bolted to a client’s house have part of a Ubiquiti Rocket M series (M5 or M3) peeking out from under the plastic housing.

    • @ Alan Jones
      Google Net Balloon will make the NBN obsolete.

      But won’t the lasers burn holes in the balloons?

  12. The trial might night be leading to a actual permanent service. Australian and NZ would be good test beds for coverage and usability of these system without having to deal with the logistics associated with conducting a test in developing countries(ie even just finding initial test users). It will let them test the environmental issues (harsh environment, hilly terrain, southern wind currents and others) without dealing with the rest of the logistics.

    • Why would anyone think of calling a WWW search engine, “Google”? (A misspelling of a mathematical term coined by a linguistically creative 9 year old? How ridiculously improbable.) Or, why name a web portal, “Yahoo”? (You cannot be Serious.) And, why name a music file-sharing service, “Napster”? What the hell is a “napster”?

      And what do parentheses, braces and brackets have to do with journalism? God Knows.

      The internet is inherently silly when it comes to names.

      • It was going to be called the National Balloon Network , but the acronym was already taken.


  13. It could have potential commercial deployments in blackspot areas where mobile signals are out of range.

    Give you example. Lets say you run a WIFI deployment on public transport

    You could run your own balloon mesh network to give yourself “free” bandwidth without having to pay someone else for carrier the data

  14. No one has mentioned the possibility of aircraft interference, I’m sure sucking a stray balloon into a jet turbine is not healthy!

    • Aircraft fly at 10km, these balloons are at 20km. They also notify ATC for all descents and ascents through controlled airspace.

      Google has this avenue well covered.

  15. So how is Google going to achieve a good blanket coverage? When they are not geostationary and can be blown around by the winds?

  16. I rather wonder if it’s not a question of testing it in a large scale physical environment that has decent technology infrastructure already.

    If I was wanting to iron out this sort of technology for deployment in Africa, then a trial run in Australia might have advantages.

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