California Management Review
California Management Review is a premier academic management journal published at UC Berkeley
by Mokter Hossain
Image Credit | Farshad Rezvanian
This year, balloons have been in the global spotlight. From January 28 to February 4, 2023, Chinese high-altitude balloon was spotted in the airspace of North America. The US and Canada claimed that these are for surveillance but China hold it a civilian. Nevertheless, balloons have a great promise for internet and other services. Balloons for internet and other services is not a technology. However, this technology has received renewed attention in recent years. It has the potential to revolutionize the way we communicate and access information (Kirkpatrick, 2018). This technology has gained tremendous attention and investment as a potential solution for connecting remote and underserved areas to the internet. In this article, I explore the balloon-based technology, how it works, and some of its promises and obstacles.
The concept of using balloons for communication dates back to the early 20th century, when scientists and inventors first began to experiment with using helium balloons to carry radio transmitters into the atmosphere. Over time, this technology evolved into weather balloons, which were used to collect data on atmospheric conditions and predict weather patterns. Today, balloons are still used for these purposes, but their applications have expanded to include everything from scientific research to military reconnaissance.
The concept of using balloons to provide internet connectivity is known as “Balloon-based Internet” or “Balloon Internet”. It involves deploying large balloons, equipped with transmitters and receivers, into the stratosphere to provide internet access to users on the ground. The balloons are typically launched from a ground station and then guided by wind currents to their desired location.
One of the most prominent companies working on balloon internet technology is Google’s parent company Alphabet, which has a subsidiary called Loon (Nagpal & Samdani, 2017). Loon has been developing balloon-based internet solutions since 2011 and has launched successful pilots in countries such as Kenya and Peru with the goal of providing internet access to rural and remote areas of the world (Moision et al., 2017). The project used balloons equipped with LTE technology to provide internet coverage, and it was piloted in New Zealand before expanding to other parts of the world. Other companies have entered the market, including Space X and Facebook, both of which are developing their own balloon-based communication systems. The potential benefits of this technology are clear: it could bring internet access to millions of people who currently lack it, including those in rural and remote areas, as well as developing countries with limited infrastructure.
The advantages of balloon-based internet are numerous. For one, it can provide internet access to remote and underserved areas where traditional infrastructure such as cables and cell towers are not feasible. This includes areas with difficult terrain or areas that are simply too far away from existing infrastructure. The basic idea is fairly simple: a balloon is equipped with a high-speed internet connection and floats in the stratosphere at an altitude. The balloons are typically designed to float at an altitude of around 20km above the earth’s surface, where they can stay aloft for months at a time. Balloons can also be used for other services. For example, they can be used to provide mobile phone coverage in remote areas, or to monitor weather patterns and other environmental factors. This has led to interest in balloon technology from a variety of industries, including telecommunications, agriculture, and transportation. They can be used to deliver emergency services, such as medical supplies or food, to remote areas that are difficult to access by road or other means of transport. They can also be used to provide weather monitoring and forecasting, which can be critical for farmers and other industries that are sensitive to weather conditions. Another potential application of balloon technology is in the field of environmental monitoring. Balloons can be equipped with sensors that measure a range of parameters, such as temperature, humidity, air quality, and atmospheric pressure. This data can be used to monitor the environment and detect changes that could have an impact on human health or the ecosystem. A team in the UK is experimenting of using balloons to separate waste into different categories through laser technologies.
The balloons can provide internet connectivity to an area of up to 5,000 square kilometers, depending on the number of balloons in the network and their positioning. Users connect to the internet via a special antenna on the ground, which communicates with the nearest balloon in the network. The data is then transmitted from the balloon to the ground station and from there to the internet. Multiple balloons can be deployed to provide coverage to larger areas, and the balloons can be moved to different locations as needed to provide coverage to specific areas.
Balloon-based internet is also relatively low cost compared to traditional infrastructure. The balloons can be launched and controlled from a central location, reducing the need for on-the-ground infrastructure and maintenance. This makes it an attractive option for governments and organizations looking to connect remote areas without incurring high costs. Unlike traditional infrastructure, which requires laying cables or building cell towers, balloons can be launched quickly and easily, making them an ideal solution for areas that are difficult to reach or that lack infrastructure. Balloon-based internet is also highly flexible. The balloons can be quickly launched and moved to different locations as needed. This makes it ideal for providing temporary internet access in emergency situations, such as during natural disasters.
Despite numerous advantages of balloon-based internet, there are also some challenges and limitations to this technology. A key challenge is maintaining a stable connection between the balloon and the ground station. Balloons are subject to weather conditions and other environmental factors, which can affect their performance and stability. For example, high winds or storms can cause balloons to drift off course or become damaged, which can interrupt service or even cause the balloon to crash. Balloons are subject to wind currents, which can make it difficult to keep them in a stable location.
Another challenge is the cost of launching and maintaining the balloons. Currently, balloons are quite expensive to manufacture and launch. While balloon-based internet is generally less expensive than traditional infrastructure, it still requires a significant investment in equipment and personnel. This may make it difficult for smaller organizations or governments to implement balloon-based internet on a large scale. There are concerns about the environmental impact of balloon-based internet. While balloons are designed to be environmentally friendly and are made from biodegradable materials, there are still concerns about the potential impact of these balloons on wildlife and the environment.
Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of balloon-based communication systems are significant, and many experts believe that this technology could play an important role in expanding access to internet and other communication services around the world. As the technology continues to evolve and improve, we can expect to see more and more companies investing in this area, and potentially even governments or non-profit organizations using balloons to provide essential services to those in need. Balloons for internet and other communication services represent a new and exciting frontier.
Kirkpatrick, K. (2018). Bringing the internet to the (developing) world. Communications of the ACM, 61(7), 20-21.
Moision, B., Erkmen, B., Keyes, E., Belt, T., Bowen, O., Brinkley, D., … & Vermeer, W. (2017, February). Demonstration of free-space optical communication for long-range data links between balloons on Project Loon. In Free-Space Laser Communication and Atmospheric Propagation XXIX (Vol. 10096, pp. 259-272). SPIE
Nagpal, L., & Samdani, K. (2017, May). Project Loon: Innovating the connectivity worldwide. In 2017 2nd IEEE International Conference on Recent Trends in Electronics, Information & Communication Technology (RTEICT) (pp. 1778-1784). IEEE.