Friday, June 14, 2013

What gets me excited about Project Loon?

One of the critical issues we often face after a disaster is that the communication infrastructure has been affected. Even when cell towers are still standing, the power infrastructure is severely damaged and often it takes days or weeks to restore these terrestrial systems. At the same time the disaster response field is undergoing a significant shift, because survivors are now able to become a central part of the response process.

Google’s announcement this evening of their Google-X Project Loon, where they plan to leverage specialized high altitude balloons (similar to weather balloons) to provide internet access to rural areas around the world is a very interesting technology for us in the disaster response field. Our field has in the past relied upon expensive satellite-based solutions that often give a limited bandwidth at an high cost. Project Loon has an opportunity to change that drastically.

The concept behind Loon is that it has 1000+ of balloons floating around the world at a very high altitude (around 20km). They expect them to stay up for around 100+ days and then they will recover them and launch new ones in their place. Each balloon costs only a fraction of what it costs to launch a satellite, so the operational costs are much lower.

The equipment needed on the ground to receive signals from them is relatively small and simple. More importantly the receiver will not be very expensive, which is a significant difference from satellite based solutions. The receivers are also expected to become smaller in size as time passes.

Having the balloons so high up, means that earthquakes and hurricanes will not affect the ability to send and receive signals. The simple receiver on the ground can also be easily packed during the hurricane and put back up immediately after it passes over. Bringing in a number of these receivers is also going to be much easier than bringing in large satellite receivers.

Improvements in connectivity enable information about the disaster to be easily shared between those responding and those affected. This enables more effective disaster response and much better targeted response, where the needs of those affected are taken into account. New methods of connectivity, such as Project Loon, enable this information sharing to occur at a much earlier stage and at a much lower cost than today’s solutions.

In rural, hard to reach areas, this technology also has the potential to revolutionize the access to the internet. This is particularly true for areas that are far away from the electrical and communication grids. Rural health clinics and schools will be able to get connected at a much cheaper cost than they currently can. This creates an opportunity to fully leverage the power of information technology in these rural areas.

Project Loon is still at the experimental stage and I am sure there are a number of issues that need to be overcome before it becomes fully operational. Some of these will be scientific in nature, some will be technical in nature, and some will be political in nature, but we at NetHope look forward to collaborating with the Project Loon team on testing this technology in the austere environments that our members operate in.

Project Loon may not change how we get connected in rural and disaster areas this year or even the next, but it is certainly an out-of-the-box potential solution to one of the complex problems we have been working on over the past 12 years since NetHope was founded. It is welcoming to see that the private sector is willing to not only focus their R&D on solutions for the top of the pyramid, but also on the 5+ billion people who today live on or below the poverty line.

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