Google Internet Balloons. What does it mean for Satellite and VSAT?

Monday 17 June 2013
Google Internet Balloons. What does it mean for Satellite and VSAT?


On 16 June 2013, Google began a pilot experiment in New Zealand where about 30 balloons were launched to provide internet access in unserved areas.

After this initial trial, Google plans on sending up 300 balloons around the world at the fortieth parallel that would provide coverage to New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina.

Google hopes to eventually have thousands of balloons flying in the stratosphere at an altitude of 20 km (12 mi).

But what does that mean for VSAT, and satellite communications in general?

Terrestrial capacity under stress

Google Balloons_VSAT_SatelliteWhy is Google doing this? There’s no rocket science needed to figure this one out. If more people get on the internet, that would mean more advertising income for Google.

The mere fact that Google is investing in these types of projects, as they have done before with O3B providing high speed backbones over satellite, is a sign that the rate of internet adoption in “internet deprived” regions is not going fast enough.

similar example closer to Newtec is an infrastructure project which Newtec realized together with Alcatel-Lucent and one of the incumbent telecom operators in Brazil.

The city of Manaus in Brazil, with 2,3 Million inhabitants in the deep Amazonas, was connected using Newtec equipment to backhaul over 1 Gbit of data to the city. This project happened, just because they couldn’t provide the city fast enough with terrestrial capacity.

The link with O3B

Google is one of the main investor behind O3B. O3B is launching its first series of satellites later this month.

The difference between O3B and Project Loon (as Google calls it), is that this project seems to be an experiment in the first place.

And Google is not even hiding that. As with lots of their other experiments, like the Google Car experiment, they want connectivity to their services, from any possible device. They also want to control the eco-system around these devices. When Google launched Android OS, they made sure all of their services (Google Mail, Google Docs, …) were on Android.

But there is a clear difference between what O3B is doing and this “Project Loon”. O3B is not an experiment. O3B is built for backhauling large amounts of data over satellite, for professional applications in the first place. This capacity is then further distributed using terrestrial technology towards businesses and consumers.

Basketball receivers

Google Balloons_VSAT_SatelliteEach balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area about 40 km in diameter at speeds comparable to 3G. 

For balloon-to-balloon and balloon-to-ground communications, the balloons use antennas equipped with specialized radio frequency technology. 

Project Loon currently uses ISM bands (specifically 2.4 and 5.8 GHz bands) that are available for anyone to use.

The first person to get Google Balloon Internet access this week was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in the small town of Leeston. Google Technicians attached to the outside walls bright red receivers the size of basketballs and resembling giant Google map pins.

Nimmo got the Internet for about 15 minutes before the balloon transmitting it, sailed on past.

From experiment to real

I think there are still lots of questions that still need to be answered:

  • Today the internet connection only lasts for about 10 minutes before the balloon transmitting sails away.
  • The balloons were tested in perfect atmospheric conditions. What would it take to make the connection stable in monsoon rain or Himalaya snow conditions?
  • 3G speeds today are barely enough to satisfy the hunger for bandwidth. What will it take for Google Loon to move up the bar to today's VSAT speeds of 30 Mbit?
  • Will this mean more interference for satellite?
  • What infrastructure is required compared to today's VSAT solutions?

Is this a gimmick? Is this just a PR stunt? Or is Google really serious about this?

What do you think will happen? Feel free to comment using the comment function on this page.

Warm regards,

Tom De Baere

Director Marketing Communications at Newtec.

P.S. You might find this webinar useful to you... Newtec is organizing a webinar on June 26, where you will learn more about : 

  • Do C- and Ku-band still have a future in VSAT? And what would that future look like?
  • Which new markets have been enabled with recent VSAT technology evolutions?
  • How to generate more revenues while optimizing your CAPEX/OPEX resources?

You can register to this webinar on this page.


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They could look at a different frequency such as X Band not susceptible to rain fade or most anomalies that Ku of Ka band are subject to. A recent satellite comm. link in the Middle East using Ka found that a sand storm was a show stopper when trying to close the link (an unknown) cause for concerns. I believe GOOGLE has to understand better the satellite frequencies, transponder efficiency and modem waveform capabilities as they progress. Rantec is currently working different BLOS airbornes satcom solutions in both Ku and Ka in conjunction with various modem manufactures including a mapping system recently evolved from iDirect. It is my belief that X Band provides the best resolution for BLOS comm, even airborne however there is a limitation of the size of reflectors to that of the airborne platform. Ku has proven to be a reliable world wide network (EPIC) and will in the future. Ku Band antennas are becoming more efficient as are the modem with anti jam (hopping) waveforms and new algorithms thus increasing the data through put.