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Google’s “Loon Balloon” Internet Feels Like A Kiwi #8 Wire Project



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Google Loon Balloon Over South Island New Zealand

At an absolute minimum, Google has scored a PR coup with their blog announcement of “Project Loon,”  a trial of Internet via balloons floating in the stratosphere over New Zealand.  You may have already seen, heard or read about this, as the story has appeared in much of the mainstream media, albeit without much journalistic scrutiny.  The Loon project has also been covered extensively in the tech “blogosphere” (pun intended).  From my reading, only very few journalists have delved into the devil of the details, and asked serious questions, which remain largely unanswered.  It is probably not in Google’s best interest to say too much more, as they have already favorably established the Loon Project in the media.  The Kiwi‘s have a term for this kind of project.  They are known in New Zealand as “#8 Wire” projects.  Read on and I will explain.

Google should be applauded for committing research and development dollars to a project they openly admit is “crazy.”  Gizmodo called it “crazy cool.”  The TechCrunch blog has called it a very long shot.  Google has also explained that the project is in the very early experimental stage. We should remember that this is the company that is also developing the driverless vehicle, which is becoming more real by the day, and Google Glass. Google is also a global leader in the emergence of Big Data. The bottom line is that Google has shown commendable leadership in pursuing these Big Ideas.   However, I am leaning toward the conclusion that this one is a very long shot, though it will be fun to follow.

IMHO, this may also be a very interesting story that involves Kiwi innovation, Kiwi culture and history, and the challenges of commercializing innovation. But for now, let’s just follow the story and the Google Loon Project, and see what develops.

With regard to the metaphor of Kiwi #8 Wire projects, it is part of the history of New Zealand.  #8 wire is the stuff that is used in New Zealand to fence in the sheep, thousands of miles of it. The term is used loosely to describe “loony” far fetched innovation projects, probably including eccentric tinkers.   For many years until PM David Lange opened the NZ economy in the 1980’s, it was heavily protectionist. The tariff burden on imports was heavy, and the economy was stuck in a South Pacific doldrum.  As a consequence, Kiwi’s increasingly became known for extraordinary ingenuity with whatever found materials they could lay their hands on. A #8 wire project became the metaphor for creative thinking in NZ.  Examples of this abound.  There is even a prominent venture capital firm in Wellington named “#8 Ventures.”

My first exposure to this phenomenon was meeting former Financial Times journalist, Craig Oram, who had immigrated to New Zealand from the UK, and was reporting on economic topics in NZ.  Oram gave a captivating presentation to our New Zealand Trade & Enterprise group.  He had quickly grasped the #8 phenomenon and seized on the amazing true story of Burt Munro, the Invercargill tinker and motorcycle racer, who set numerous motorcycle land speed records in the 1950’s and ’60’s at the Bonneville salt flats in Utah.  Despite these achievements, Munro never turned his high profile successes into commercial success. Kiwi’s in the know will often mention the name “Burt,” with all of the heavy implied meaning, to remind themselves.  Oram used the Burt Munro story in his presentations to typify “#8 wire projects,” and a broader failure in the NZ economy to effectively commercialize their innovations.  For those interested, the Burt Munro story was made into an excellent  feature film (4 stars on Rotten Tomatoes) starring Anthony Hopkins as Munro, The World’s Fastest Indian.” 

Another more relevant example of this type of Kiwi innovation was published in the Wall Street Journal years ago, about an innovator who had converted a Weber barbeque tub into a long-range WiFi antenna to successfully transmit a WiFi signal a record 100 kilometers. I can no longer find the story reference in the WSJ archives, but there is another connection between a Weber barbeque and WiFi.  You can now buy a product online that allows you to use WiFi to control the temperature of your Weber barbeque from your remote mobile phone while you are away on errands.

But back to the main point of this post, solar powered, stratospheric balloon delivery of 3G cellular data service to remote locations.  Apparently New Zealand is an ideal location to trial this kind of balloon project because the most favorable winds are at 40 degrees latitude south, directly over the North Island of New Zealand and perhaps the next trial site, Tasmania.  The Google Loon project is being launched over Christchurch on the South Island, but this is a minor point.

The BBC June 15th online article is one of the better articles, that explores the numerous issues with this approach.

Read more: Google Balloon Project

The first obvious concern is how do you effectively navigate in the stratosphere and keep an untethered balloon in one place?  The military apparently has tried this concept, but on a much smaller scale, and a smaller area. Tethered balloons apparently have been a failure, the most notable of these failures may be the U.S. border security tethered balloon surveillance project that was canned after spending Billions.  Google says they have navigation solved, using Google’s massive databases and servers, by controlling the altitude of the balloons to take advantage of varying wind direction.  Part of the justification for this approach is to provide service quickly and efficiently to areas with no terrestrial Internet infrastructure, which seems to make sense, but there are also potential geopolitical issues.  A recent round-the-World balloon record attempt was vexed by their failure to obtain approval from China to overfly their territory. With nations increasingly seeking to control their Internet access, Google may be creating a technology that could be politically dead on arrival.  The balloons have transponders to alert aircraft, but with potentially thousands of these Google balloons all over the globe, I could envision the International Air Transport Association (IATA), or the United Nations seeking to control the balloons. It dawns on me that powered blimp drones could potentially solve the navigation problem, but not the other problems below.

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Google Loon Project Solar Panels

The second concern I have is the use of only 4 apparently standard photovoltaic solar panels (pictured above), which can generate maybe 500 to 600 Watts maximum, but only during the daylight hours.  Energy storage is the key challenge of renewable energy generally, which requires batteries.  Batteries of all varieties are very heavy and bulky.  The stratosphere is about 15 to 20 miles up in the atmosphere.  So how can a 600 Watt, daylight only, solar powered balloon deliver 3G or standard WiFi signals 20 miles and more, 24 hours a day, to cover a very large area on the ground, perhaps 50 miles in diameter?   This seems implausible at best.

Wide area coverage from a distance of 20 to 25 miles also begs the question of user contention, with potentially large numbers of users all accessing the balloon antenna simultaneously.  A mobile device cannot transmit upstream a distance of 20 miles.  Or is there some proprietary Google radio signal technology acting as an intermediary link to standard access points on the ground. But isn’t this about delivering Internet connectivity without any terrestrial infrastructure? Does the balloon technology only work at much lower wireless bandwidth, which in such situations would be better than having nothing.

What about Internet traffic backhaul from the balloon to the Cloud, at an optical fibre multi-gigabit level, as is done on the ground?  First, I must admit that I do know a bit about radio signal propagation, spectrum, and power, but a little bit is a dangerous thing. I am no expert.  But a logical assumption, since this operates over areas with no terrestrial Internet infrastructure, would be that a satellite link would be the choice, but I don’t see a dish. If so this would require very stable platform acquisition and maintenance of the satellite link.   If not satellite, what other backhaul link is being used?  Can 500 to 600 Watts handle all of this on a balloon platform?

Another key point is that cellular data service is expensive. There is a reason for that.  The backhaul from cellular towers is expensive.

Google has made clear that expanding the global Internet to new markets that are currently underserved on not served at all, is a strategic priority for them.  This initiative, as off the wall as it may be, and with its Super WiFi ground-based technology trial in South Africa, Google is putting its money where its mouth is. Google’s must grow its business beyond its current developed markets to maintain its dominance.  Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has been taking on the role of global ambassador for their strategy.  But there are serious technical questions with the untethered balloon concept. More concerning, Google may be running into international political resistance as nations take a much more proactive role in managing and regulating the Internet in their territories, as they do with telecommunications, radio spectrum and other national resources.

UPDATE:  Google Loon Project leader Mike Cassidy was interviewed by Ira Flatow, this morning on National Public Radio’s Science Friday program.  Mr. Cassidy clarified that they are delivering a 3G mobile “Internet” data service from the balloons. Employing 3G has been criticized by the MIT Technology blog below, for being impractical, and expensive. Regrettably, there was no discussion on NPR of the technical and geopolitical issues, and no call-in questions. 

RELATED ARTICLES: African Entrepreneurs Deflate Google’s Loon Balloon Project (Tech in America via MIT Technology Review)

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