We can all agree that no school year has ever quite looked like this one. The Covid-19 global pandemic has disrupted the way we work, socialize, interact, and communicate to unprecedented degrees. With dorms and classrooms closed for months, students joined the rest of the country in sheltering at home – whether they could afford to do so or not! As offices and schools around the globe go remote, the internet becomes more important than ever to everyone – so when your internet connection slows down in the face of multiple household users – we all feel it! So, what happens in the event of a local disaster, where the local internet infrastructure is- temporarily or permanently- destroyed?
In this article, we will explore the possibilities presented by roving internet balloons that can provide access and connectivity as a high-tech form of disaster relief.
1. Connecting People Everywhere
“Connecting People Everywhere” is the slogan of Loon, a subsidiary of Alphabet – the parent company of Google, which is a little search engine you might have heard of. The company is focused on providing high-speed broadband connectivity to remote corners of the world, as well as places that may have suffered damage to their internet systems.
July of last year saw the launch of Loom’s first commercial venture, as they released their latest internet balloon developments in partnership with Telekom Kenya. During that test period, villagers in the remote mountains of Kenya could purchase 4G internet plans as the balloons floated over their towns. Loon partners with pre-existing service providers to increase connectivity in underserved areas. They recently linked up with AT&T, expanding their range of coverage possibilities to any country in partnership with the phone service provider. This new partnership will make the process of providing disaster relief much faster.
The balloons are designed for high-altitude territories and hover up to 20 km in the air. They can travel up to 40 km distance and function similarly to cellphone towers- except that these towers move with the wind.
It works like this: As they float, the balloons create a sky-high wireless network. Wi-Fi signal is sent up to the nearest balloon connected through a partner station on the ground- the network syncs with a solar cell-powered antenna system. The Wi-Fi signal is then sent throughout the network of Loon balloons and transferred to people’s normal LTE handsets, as they sync to the floating mobile network.
2. Disaster Relief and Disaster Preparedness
In the wake of an ecological catastrophe like an earthquake, typhoon, or flood, chaos ensues, and damage can seem all-pervasive. When even the core structures of buildings in an urban zone are destroyed, one of the most pernicious side effects can be the destruction of the internet infrastructure – with no access to an internet connection, people are not able to communicate, leading to increased panic and possible further casualties.
By providing these aerial internet hubs, Loon can help mitigate the failures of communication so prevalent during and after a crisis. So far, noncommercial trials in Puerto Rico and Peru have presented promising results. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, they were able to deliver internet balloons, providing phone and basic internet service to over 100,000 people stranded in Puerto Rico. In 2019 they responded quickly to an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in Peru, successfully installing internet connectivity within 48 hours of the quake.
Now the company is turning its focus to disaster preparedness, ensuring that there is a pre-existing infrastructure on the ground in high-risk places. They are improving quickly: the response to Hurricane Maria took around one month to get the balloons up and running in Puerto Rico, but just two years later they were able to respond within days to the earthquake in Peru. Having pre-existing connections on the ground makes a huge strategic difference for the initiative, which relies on localized internet-providing partners to connect with.
Loon has been working to install stations on the ground in the Caribbean to prepare for hurricane season. And they are working to expand their global reach, to ensure that, should a crisis occur, they will be ready to move in swiftly to provide relief from the damage to communication technologies.
3. Issues and Concerns
As technology develops, Loon will need to work out solutions to several problems – unsurprising when considering the ambitious nature of their project. So far, the balloons last only a handful of months before they deteriorate, presenting a costly barrier to installing these web balloons as a permanent solution in underserved areas. The technology is also handicapped by its reliance on solar energy- meaning the functionality will be affected by the weather. Only in sunny places will the balloons work consistently and reliably well.
The time it takes to provide relief after a disaster is another concern – as mentioned above, the balloons took nearly a month to properly install after Hurricane Maria in 2017. But the company seems to be well aware of this issue and taking concrete steps to combat it, increasing its preparations before a natural disaster occurs.
Meanwhile, Loon faces increasingly tight competition from companies that are working to develop forms of broadband connection from space. Since the inception of the internet balloon project, more and more companies have engaged in this space tech quest, and the widespread nature of this type of internet provider may prove to be more accessible and better functioning for remote areas- putting a serious dent in Loon’s commercial prospects.
4. The Internet in the Clouds
What would once be considered the stuff of fantasy or sci-fi is now becoming increasingly real and also practical? As Loon continues to hone its floating internet balloons, this fanciful approach to providing internet connection the world over may prove to be the most sensible way forward for providing disaster relief and allowing people in remote villages to connect to global networks. That is if a broadband connection from space doesn’t make this technology redundant already.