Better Australian Network Coverage From Drones and Balloons

The key reasons that drones and balloons are a big deal

Australia has fantastic mobile network coverage options. In some areas of the world, however, they’re trying innovative ideas to provide people the mobile internet they need.

  • Google is experimenting with their balloon project known as “Project Loon”, to deliver similar to 4G internet speeds, over areas with poor coverage.
  • In Britain, the major Telecom company EE has started trialling drone technology to deliver broadband internet.
  • Both drones and balloons are innovative technology solutions which are a great step in improving rural connectivity.


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Using balloons and drones for network coverage

In the UK, Telecom companies are starting to experiment with balloon and drone technologies, to improve 4G network reception for customers which are in lower coverage areas. The drone and balloons utilise small cells technology which is being trialed in the hopes of increasing speed and performance.

Mansoor Hanif, director of RAN for UK market Telecom leader EE in a recent media interview, discussed his view on using emerging technologies such as drones and balloons.

“We hope to trial a balloon based repeater for 4G and 3G in the highlands of Scotland within the next six months. We’re not going to make it ourselves, we’re going to borrow it from another operator that has already got it live.”

“We are also actively working with some of the people in the conference next door [The Commercial UAV Show] to see if we can miniaturise base stations small enough to get the payload low enough to make it economical. But that’s a different story.” Mansoor said.

The move from EE comes as tech giant Google begins ramping up their Project Loon, which previously focused on emerging markets in Southern America and is now set to expand into primary markets as their technology increases.

There are reports that Google is in the process of courting mobile network operators to position Project Loon as a complement to their existing business models, rather than as a direct competition.

Google to bring internet balloons to Australia

As reported Google is about to bring their Project Loon to Australia. Project Loon is an amazing internet transmitting project which uses balloons to bring connectivity to areas which are unconnected, or have limited reception and coverage.

Google is set to test fly up to 20 balloons in Western Queensland during this December, in a partnership with Australia’s largest network provider Telstra.

In this latest phase of Google’s Project Loon, they plan to beam high-speed internet to remote Queensland areas, transmitted via their helium balloons, as they travel around the globe.

The balloons utilize existing stratospheric winds to travel 20km above ground, as they beam the internet using antennas and 4G like signals. During this partnership trial, Telstra will supply access to base stations so that the ground teams from Google can communicate with the balloons, via the Telstra radio spectrum.

Google’s ultimate plan is to have a ring of helium balloons travelling around the earth to bring fast 4G speed internet to around two-thirds of the people which currently don’t have access.

How does Google’s Balloon “Project Loon” work ?

Internet-connected base stations bounce signals up to the balloons, which float at about twice the altitude of passenger jets or roughly at 20km above ground.

The signals hop forward from one balloon to the next.

Each balloon transmits internet signals down to an area more than twice the size of Canberra.

Card table-sized solar panels powers on-board technology which allows the balloons to stay airborne for about 100 days.

Project Loon plans to have a ring of balloons circling the Earth, floating on westerly stratospheric winds.

So why is Google doing this?

Project Loon balloons float in the stratosphere which is twice as high as commercial airplanes fly. This stratosphere is ideal as there are many layers of wind, which can be used to control various different directions and speeds. The balloons drift to where they are needed by using the descending or rising layers of wind, blowing the balloons in the desired direction.

On the ground people can connect to the balloon network, by connecting to special Internet antennas which are attached to their home or office building, much the same as how existing telecommunications towers work. From here the signal bounces upwards to the balloons and is then received by the hand-held device as an internet transmission.

Using drones to boost 4G coverage

In the future in Australia, much like the balloon network Telstra and Google are working on, there could be a network of drones buzzing around our skies, delivering high speeds much like our existing 4G networks.

This army of airborne drones would be used to deliver wireless internet access, as well as mobile phone signals to remote areas of Australia which currently have poor and under performing mobile service.

In Britain, the biggest mobile phone provider EE has already begun on testing drone technology, with the ambition of deploying a network of drones by the end of this decade. By using drones to broadcast wireless internet to rural towns, EE hopes to lower infrastructure costs and deliver a high level of service to these areas.

The drone network will constantly beam a strong signal downwards to an area below, allowing smaller remote communities to access the internet with high speeds. This is also great news for the environment as there is no need to install towers, base stations or expensive underground cabling.

Olaf Swantee, EE chief executive on the topic was quoted :

“In the UK, there are still many places where you can’t make a phone call.” “We want to solve that.”

He also said EE planned to “radically improve mobile coverage, this time with a strong focus on rural parts of the UK”


In Conclusion

While companies such as Google are developing floating balloon technologies and major Telecoms are experimenting with drone technology, this is still quite a way off from becoming usable tech.

Rural areas with poor internet connections can look forward to exciting future developments which will provide them with the same fast speed access that city users are already enjoying. Drones and balloons will be able to provide a larger range of coverage to areas that have traditionally been disadvantaged.

While this is not something that operators in Australia are going to worry about too soon – Boost Mobile are not going to be putting a balloon network in the air anytime soon ! – it’s an important trend from a global perspective. If these trials prove successful, the lessons learned could well be applied down here to cover remote bush areas. The developing world stands to gain most, however. Inexpensive internet access and cheap mobile phones could improve the lives of millions.

Neil Aitken

Having worked in 3 countries for 4 telcos on both voice and data products, Neil is in a position to give you the inside track. Get beyond the marketing messages to the best plan for you.