Thursday, June 12, 2014

Can Google connect the "other three billion" in developing nations and rural areas?

Doing well by doing good

One of our grand challenges is to bring Internet connectivity to rural areas and developing nations and Google may be working toward that goal. They are experimenting with terrestrial and extra-terrestrial wireless technology. I will look at terrestrial wireless in a subsequent post -- this one focuses on extra-terrestrial technologies.

During the last couple decades, NGOs, governments and entrepreneurs have worked with four extra-terrestrial connectivity technologies:

(See pictures at the end of this post)
Let's look at Google's projects in this context.

High altitude platforms (HAPs) are blimps, drones or balloons that hover or circulate in the stratosphere. They have cloudless access to solar energy and being above the weather helps with control, but their signals must travel through rain and clouds. They are the lowest flying technology, so packet latency is relatively small, but so is their "footprint" -- the area their signal covers on the ground.

The most visible HAP Internet effort has been that of Sanswire, which has run well-publicized tests for over a decade. Sanswire has gone through bankruptcy, announced projects in Latin America that never materialized and faced complaints by suppliers and employees, but they are still working on Internet connectivity.

Google has two HAP projects, Project Loon, using balloons and a drone project using technology from recently purchased Titan Aerospace. There have been reports of Google blimp trials, but I've not seen any details on those. Let me know if you have more information.

Most satellites -- like the Space Station and sensing satellites -- are in low Earth orbit (LEO). LEO satellites move relative to the ground, which means that either communication windows are intermittent or many satellites -- a "constellation" -- are needed to cover the planet.

The first LEO Internet project I know of was used for intermittent connectivity in Africa during the early 1990s. Shortly thereafter, a number of entrepreneurial LEO projects were announced. The most ambitious was Teledesic, which proposed Internet connectivity for the entire planet using a constellation of 288 satellites orbiting at 700 kilometers. Teledesic had high-profile backers like Bill Gates, Paul Allen and a Saudi prince, but the technology of the day was not up to the task and the company failed.

Today, the best-known LEO communication system is Iridium's satellite phone service, consisting of 66 LEO satellites. (Iridium was conceived by motorola as an Internet project, but was scaled back to telephony, went bankrupt and reemerged as a phone service).

This week, Google acquired Skybox Imaging, a company that has put a LEO satellite in a 600 kilometer orbit. The company was formed for data gathering, for example for providing real time video and images of traffic on roads, the sea and in the air, environmental monitoring, or map and earth imaging.

As we see in the following heat-map video from Skybox, satellite imaging proliferated rapidly between 1986 and 2012:

This sort of imagery has both economic and military value so it will provide Google both revenue and expertise in the short run. Might they be planning to parlay that into a constellation of Skybox communication satellites -- Teledesic II with modern technology -- in the long run?

Medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites are used for communication and navigation. Google recently announced a project with O3b Networks (other three billion). O3b currently has four satellites in 8,000 kilometer equatorial orbits and they plan to launch four more this year. They say those eight satellites will enable them to offer continuous service to all parts of the Earth within 45 degrees of the Equator.

The project with Google is headed by two O3b executives and they speak of spending billions dollars and putting at least 180 satellites in orbit. When they speak of 180 satellites, one wonders whether they are considering a LEO constellation.

(Update: Google's project with O3b Networks has ended, but O3b's MEO technology could still be deployed in Cuba and elsewhere).

Today's commercial satellite Internet connectivity is provided by geostationary satellites, which are positioned above the equator and remain stationary with respect to the surface of the earth since they orbit exactly once per day. Their orbit altitude enables multi-country footprints, but latency and launch costs are high.

Geostationary satellites have been used in rural areas and developing nations since the early days of the Internet, and the industry has remained viable as a result of technical progress in launch technology (public and private), antennas, solar power, radios and other electronics, as well as tuning of TCP/IP protocols to account for the 1/4 second latency due to the orbital altitude. (I've had surprisingly natural voice over IP conversations with people on geostationary satellite connections).

Have those technologies progressed to the point where HAPs and lower orbit satellites are now viable as well?

Since the beginning years of the Internet, NGOs, government agencies and entrepreneurs has been working on the Grand Challenge of connecting developing nations. They have not succeeded, but Google, with improved technology, deep pockets, a long-range viewpoint and economic motivation (ads) may be able to pull it off.

Finally, I cannot end this post without wondering whether Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, and Richard Brnason, founder of Virgin Galactic are eyeing those other three billion people.

Update, 6/20/2014

There is a 99 comment discussion of this post on the Slashdot Web site.

Update 11/15/2014

A proposal for a low-earth-orbit satellite constellation like that attempted by Teledesic is being re-considered using modern launch and satellite technology. Entrepreneurs Elon Musk (launch technology) and Greg Wyler (satellite technology) are working on a constellation of 700 low-earth orbit satellites to provide Internet connectivity to rural areas and developing nations and Google has several related projects. Will they realize Teledesic's 1990 vision using 2020 technology?

In an earlier post, I proposed the use of conventional geo-stationary satellites in Cuba. If this effort by Musk and Tyler were to succeed, and the Cuban government would allow it, this would provide an even better interim connectivity solution. (Modern fiber infrastructure would remain as the ultimate goal, but satellites would provide an affordable interim step).

Update 1/27/2014

Well, the die is cast. Google has elected to back Elon Musk's satellite Internet project in competition with Greg Wyler. It's great to see two major teams competing to be ISPs to the Earth. If one or both succeed, the upside for humanity is clear, but is there a downside? It is a bit frightening to think of a global ISP with, say, a billion customers. What sort of regulation or oversight would be needed?

Elon Musk announcing the opening of the SpaceX
satellite engineering and development office in Seattle

Teledesic animation showing a satellite
constellation that would cover the planet.

There has been significant technical progress in connectivity
to geostationary satellites since this picture was taken in India.

Figure from Arthur C. Clarke's article proposing
geostationary satellites for world wide radio coverage

Geostationary satellites have large footprints.

Titan Aerospace solar-poweed drone

O3b MEOs will cover the middle of the planet/

Does anyone know anything about this Google blimp? (Photoshopped?)

Project Loon balloon

Sandisk's latest HAP attempt

Airport example from Skybox Imaging (more cool videos here)

Update 8/6/2016

Our balloons today are doing pretty much everything a complete system needs to do. We're in discussions with telcos around the world, and we're going to fly over places like Indonesia for real service testing this year.

Astro Teller, head of Google X, gave a Ted Talk on the unexpected benefit of rewarding failure. Google X works on "moonshot" projects. They start with a radical idea then immediately begin trying to prove it is impossible by attacking what appears to be its weakest spot. If the weak spot cannot be overcome, they kill the project and reward the participants.

In this talk, Teller described several projects that had failed and some that had not yet failed. Project Loon, Google's balloon-based Internet access experiment has not failed so far. In fact, it has made significant progress.

Teller gave a status report on Project Loon, which is still very much alive, starting at 8 min 22 sec of the following full talk:

The transcript of his Project Loon report follows, but you should check out the video for the images.
Probably the craziest sounding project we have is Project Loon. We're trying to make balloon-powered Internet. A network of balloons in the stratosphere that beam an internet connection down to rural and remote areas of the world. This could bring online as many as four billion more people, who today have little or no internet connection.
But you can't just take a cell tower, strap it to a balloon and stick it in the sky. The winds are too strong, it would be blown away. And the balloons are too high up to tie it to the ground.
Here comes the crazy moment. What if, instead, we let the balloons drift and we taught them how to sail the winds to go where the needed to go? It turns out the stratosphere has winds that are going in quite different speeds and directions in thin strata. So we hoped that using smart algorithms and wind data from around the world, we could maneuver the balloons a bit, getting them to go up and down just a tiny bit in the stratosphere to grab those winds going in those different directions and speeds. The idea is to have enough balloons so as one balloon floats out of your area, there's another balloon ready to float into place, handing off the internet connection, just like your phone hands off between cell towers as you drive down the freeway.
We get how crazy that vision sounds -- there's the name of the project to remind us of that. So since 2012, the Loon team has prioritized the work that seems the most difficult and so the most likely to kill their project.
The first thing that they did was try to get a Wi-Fi connection from a balloon in the stratosphere down to an antenna on the ground. It worked. And I promise you there were bets that it wasn't going to. So we kept going.
Could we get the balloon to talk directly to handsets, so that we didn't need the antenna as an intermediary receiver? Yeah.
Could we get the balloon bandwidth high enough so it was a real Internet connection? So that people could have something more than just SMS? The early tests weren't even a megabit per second, but now we can do up to 15 megabits per second. Enough to watch a TED Talk.
Could we get the balloons to talk to each other through the sky so that we could reach our signal deeper into rural areas? Check.
Could we get balloons the size of a house to stay up for more than 100 days, while costing less than five percent of what traditional, long-life balloons have cost to make? Yes. In the end. But I promise you, you name it, we had to try it to get there. We made round, silvery balloons. We made giant pillow-shaped balloons. We made balloons the size of a blue whale. We busted a lot of balloons.
Since one of the things that was most likely to kill the Loon project was whether we could guide the balloons through the sky, one of our most important experiments was putting a balloon inside a balloon.
So there are two compartments here, one with air and then one with helium. The balloon pumps air in to make itself heavier, or lets air out to make it lighter. And these weight changes allow it to rise or fall, and that simple movement of the balloon is its steering mechanism. It floats up or down, hoping to grab winds going in the speed and direction that it wants.
But is that good enough for it to navigate through the world? Barely at first, but better all the time.
This particular balloon, our latest balloon, can navigate a two-mile vertical stretch of sky and can sail itself to within 500 meters of where it wants to go from 20,000 kilometers away.
We have lots more to do in terms of fine-tuning the system and reducing costs. But last year, a balloon built inexpensively went around the world 19 times over 187 days. So we're going to keep going.
Our balloons today are doing pretty much everything a complete system needs to do. We're in discussions with telcos around the world, and we're going to fly over places like Indonesia for real service testing this year.

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