Say good bye to ARES, RACES, and ARRL as we know it today.
Hurricane Maria demolished Puerto Rico’s brittle electrical grid in one slash across the island. In doing so, it also took the broadband infrastructure with it. A fix could soon be high-altitude concepts for beaming internet to disaster-stricken areas from the sky.
Google is working on such a concept. Google’s parent company Alphabet announced In October 2017 that their stratospheric balloons are currently bringing Internet service to areas of Puerto Rico with non-functioning cellphone towers. “Project Loon,” which engineered the advanced technology, allows for basic communication and data usage in collaboration with AT&T. “This is the first time we have used our new machine learning powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico.” Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, said. “So we’re still learning how best to do this. As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.”
Project Loon is a research and development project being developed by X (formerly Google X) with the mission of providing Internet access to rural and remote areas. The project uses high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 18 km (11 mi) to create an aerial wireless network with up to 4G-LTE speeds. It was named Project Loon, since even Google itself found the idea of providing Internet access to the remaining 5 billion population unprecedented and “loony“.
The balloons use patch antennas – which are directional antennas – to transmit signals to ground stations or LTE users. Some smartphones with Google SIM cards can use Google Internet services. The whole infrastructure is based on LTE; the eNodeB component (the equivalent of the “base station” that talks directly to handsets) is carried in the balloon.
Just like in Peru, Project Loon can’t simply send high-altitude balloons to the region without first establishing a connection to telecommunication providers. “In order to deliver a signal to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network — the balloons can’t do it alone, an X spokesperson told Mashable.
X (Google) isn’t the only company with these high-flying internet ambitions. Facebook isn’t in the balloon business, but is currently testing its internet-streaming Aquila drone. It’s a massive unmanned plane with a wingspan greater than a Boeing 737. It’s designed to fly at 60,000 feet, and in May Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote these solar-powered drones “will beam internet to remote parts of the world and eventually break the record for longest unmanned aircraft flight.”
So soon will be gone the day with Amateur radio operators will be needed to send Red Cross messages, set up communications for Government officials and any other assistance on a large scale. When Government’s can reach out to companies like Google or Facebook to set up “cell towers in the sky” it will be quicker, safer, and organized better. The need to send radios, antennas and all the association equipment that goes with ham operators will be a thing of the past. Why feed and house operators and send them out to remote sites when someone can go with their cell phone and laptop and do the same thing faster and, most likely, more reliable than propagation. This can also lead to lose of radio bandwidth, frequencies, for the amateur community as they may become dedicated to emergency communications and testing for these companies.
Darren S. Holbrook
Sources: Google; Mashable, Wikipedia; People