As my colleague Yanitsa pointed out in her latest blog network sharing among operators is very much in fashion as a means of expanding network coverage. Investing and building a network is, of course incredibly expensive for operators: Telefonica’s O2 UK mentions in almost every press release that it invests £2 million a day into its network.

But what if there’s an alternative way to spread coverage which is ubiquitous, and doesn’t involve extortionate rent or playing nicely with others?

An innovative solution comes from a technology segment called High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS), aircraft which fly in the atmosphere for extended amounts of time while beaming connectivity.

Many familiar names had or have a hand in HAPS. Facebook scrapped its internet beaming drones in 2018, while SoftBank established HAPSMobile, a joint venture with US tech company AeroVironment, which is currently in the testing phase.

Another recognisable name in HAPS is Google parent Alphabet, which is on the cusp of commercially launching its balloon-based solution with operators via its subsidiary Loon.

Deep in the company’s experimental labs in 2012, technology experts were tasked with bringing the internet to underserved parts of the world, to which they responded by attaching stripped-down mobile masts to helium balloons.

Loon had made serious progress since its experimental days to the point Alphabet scrapped its drone counterpart.

The project proved itself to be a viable connectivity solution during emergency situations. Loon stepped-up after devastating natural disasters battered Peru and Puerto Rico in 2017, by launching balloons to connect rescue workers and people searching for survivors.

Peru experienced its worst flooding in years, leaving up to a hundred people reported dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. Puerto Rico was decimated by Hurricane Maria, which killed almost 3,000 people and caused more than $100 billion in damages.

Official figures stated 95 per cent of cell sites on the island were completely wiped out by the storm.

In total, Loon connected more than 300,000 people who endured a natural disaster to a mobile signal.

The project then gained traction with operators. In 2018, Loon agreed a deal with Telkom Kenya, followed in 2019 by Telefonica Peru to extend their respective networks in non-emergency situations.

The aim of these partnerships were to connect people who live in harsh terrains such as mountains and, in Telefonica’s case, the famous Amazon Rainforest. Of course such lands would provide a challenge for operators to build and maintain a mast.

Loon head of global communications Scott Coriell told Mobile World Live the company’s technology had improved leaps and bounds since its experimental days, when Wi-Fi routers were simply stuffed into foam coolers and then floated into the sky, in balloons capable of flying for only a few hours.

Now the solar-powered equipment on board uses AI and machine learning to navigate autonomously through the stratosphere, well out of the way of adverse weather conditions, wildlife and other aircraft. The balloons are capable of beaming a 4G connection to an area of 5,000 square kms: to put that into perspective London is 1,572 square kms.

The aim on the technology side now is to “eventually be indistinguishable from the service you would expect when in range of a LTE” tower, said Corriell.

“We routinely establish mesh networks of five, ten or even 20 balloons that are all connected to one another through a ground-based connection point. Our record setting balloon was aloft for 223 days. And, to date, our system had been used to connect hundreds of thousands of people to the internet”.

At the moment, it is government approval which is preventing Loon from really taking off. Coriell detailed the arduous process of getting balloons in the air, citing a high level of bureaucracy.

“In order to operate in a given country or region, Loon needs a number of regulatory and governmental approvals, which can include everything from the ability to import ground equipment to approvals to utilise airspace”.

“We are working closely with regulators and governments around the world on the necessary approvals to enable Loon’s service. Given that Loon is a new technology, this will take time. But we have been very encouraged by the positive reception from governments and regulators.”

“For the past few months, we’ve been working with the government of Kenya to formalise the details of our planned flight operations. We expect these details to be finalised soon, at which point we will begin flying balloons in Kenya and conducting necessary network testing.

Make or break
Strategy Analytics director Guang Yang said to provide ubiquitous coverage in extremely rural areas, satellites and HAPS “should be the best solution” and the “trial in Kenya is important for Google to gain more carrier partners”.

But he noted there are other challenges to iron out for the fledgling technology. “Besides the technical issues, the potential business model also needs to be considered. Perhaps some kind of Balloon Sharing between multiple operators could be taken into the extremely rural area in order to improve profitability”.

Loon’s work with Telkom Kenya and Telefonica Peru is make or break for this incredible idea that has so much potential.

The project had drawn scepticism from Telkom Indonesia, Vodafone New Zealand, and Orange, which in 2019 told Reuters Loon may never sit comfortably within their business models unless it proves to be “reliable, safe and profitable”.

Rightfully so, every new idea needs to prove itself and this year could be the one we see it really take off. If successful, Loon could change the landscape of wireless. But, above all, we could see the half of the world’s population currently lacking connectivity brought online, which can only bring dividends for the rest of the world.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.