Monday, March 23, 2015

Balloons, Drones to Deliver Mobile and Broadband Internet Service

Google, Facebook and UMOBILE (Universal, Mobile-centric and Opportunistic Communications Architecture)—a project being developed by a European consortium headed by Portugal-based multinational company Tekever—are all exploring the possibilities of connecting more people to the internet by using balloons and solar-powered drones. Google’s Project Loon balloons, which were originally unveiled in June 2013, can now remain in the air for up to six months as opposed to only 100 days—the timeframe of its early launches—and can provide 4G/LTE service to an area the size of Rhode Island. Google has integrated its Project Loon technology to work with telecom operators’ cellular networks. Mobile operators can send signals from their existing cell towers to Google’s balloons, which in turn send the signals down to smartphones and other cellular-connected devices. According to Google, one balloon can also send its signal to another balloon, which enlarges the coverage area to an area even bigger than Rhode Island. Google has also started test flights on its solar-powered drone initiative, known as Project Titan, on 8 March, and they will run through 5 September. The drones, which can remain in the air for up to 50 years, have been designed to supplement existing services on the ground and to provide internet access during events such as natural disasters when communication services break down. Through its Connectivity Lab, Facebook has also been testing out drones, satellites and lasers as ways to connect people, and the Lab’s engineering director, Yael Maguire, has said that Facebook is planning to trial a Wi-Fi drone the size of a Boeing 747 jet at a height of 60,000 to 90,000 feet in 2015. Lastly, UMOBILE is studying ways to bring internet access to regions around the world that do not have it by using drones that are equipped with wireless technology.

Bringing the internet to more people is the primary driver behind what some are referring to as a “sci-fi” means of connectivity. Nonetheless, Google and Facebook—although Facebook is downplaying its drone exploration—will each gain, both financially and in terms of raising their public image, if their balloon and drone connectivity initiatives help to provide more people with access to the internet, particularly in developing nations where sufficient coverage currently does not exist. The financial gains for the two internet giants stem from the fact that the more people who have access to the internet, the more people will use their services.
With that in mind, MNOs should not view these initiatives as threats (it seems unlikely their either company intends to become an ISP) but rather as an inexpensive way to build out infrastructure—particularly in rural areas with very small populations where it would not be economically feasible to construct cell towers—but should partner with them. For example, both Vodafone New Zealand and Telstra in Australia have supported Google’s Project Loon. Facebook emphasized that point at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that his company is not threatening the livelihoods of the big telecom companies that deliver the internet in more prosaic ways and that they will be the ones that really drive the internet forward. He believes the business model is that Facebook will innovate and the telecoms will follow suit. So whether it be flying apparatus in the air or bringing the internet to the under-served by less sensational means such as Facebook’s, it will be a win for mobile operators as well.

“Costly infrastructure build-out is a necessary evil for operators as they look for ways to satisfy users’ needs as well as to acquire new users. Bringing in new subscribers will increase revenue for MNOs; however, in areas with very low population levels, such as rural regions in developing nations, the cost of expansion makes it prohibitive. Operators have turned to a few solutions on the ground such as network sharing and ‘build to suit’ policies for infrastructure build-out. It now appears that the sky is the limit as a new frontier for internet connectivity.”
Jamie Davella,
Research Analyst at Tarifica

The above item appeared in a recent issue of The Tarifica Alert, a weekly resource that analyzes noteworthy developments in the telecoms industry from around the world. To access all of the latest articles and issues or to speak with the research team:


  1. Thanks Jamie Davella for your great post. I am really happy to get mobile broadband internet service.

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