Project Loon set for Indonesia, will circle globe next year

29 Oct 2015

From left to right: Ririek Adriansyah, CEO of Telkomsel; Dian Siswarini, CEO of XL Axiata; Alexander Rusli, Indosat CEO; Mike Cassidy, VP, Loon; Sergey Brin, president of Alphabet Inc. Behind them you can see a half-size scaled replica of the latest balloon design, the Nighthawk.

Google’s ambitious plan to send hundreds of internet-beaming balloons into the sky to provide good internet access to people in every corner of the planet just took a major step forward after the tech giant reached a deal with the major mobile network providers in Indonesia to trial its network there next year.

Google has tested Project Loon across 17 million kilometres of jungles, mountains and plains to get to this stage, signing an agreement with Indosat, Telkomsel and XL Axiata for next year’s Indonesian trial.

Indonesia has been chosen as a test base as only one-third of its 250m inhabitants have internet access at the minute, with a tangible fibre network pretty impossible across such disparate populaces on various islands.

Currently, only about one in three of Indonesia’s 250m residents is connected to the internet.

Big distance, big target

The Loon team claims to have already achieved its goal of providing wireless internet access between individual balloons floating over 100km apart in the stratosphere, so this Indonesian operation will put that to the test.

It will also be the foundation of Google’s ultimate goal of populating the skies above with balloons all over the world, which has seen a gradual, yet significant, series of success stories already.

“In the early days, the balloons would last five or seven or 10 days. Now we have had balloons that have lasted as long as 187 days,” said Mike Cassidy, vice-president of Project Loon.

Improvements across the board

Cassidy’s team has also improved the launch process, with two or three people needed to launch a balloon every 15 minutes now, rather than 14 every two hours when the project originally started.

300 balloons are needed to circle the globe, with Cassidy hoping to build the continuous ring next year, “and to have some sort of continuous coverage for certain regions”.

“And if all goes well after, then after that we will start rolling out our first beta commercial customers.”

This is actually a race, thus the 2016 plan. Samsung was the latest major company to join the field in the challenge to provide internet to all. Last August it wrote of a target to interconnect a network of 4,600 low-orbit satellites.

OneWeb (Richard Branson) and SpaceX (Elon Musk) are also going down the microsatellite route, with Facebook eyeing internet planes.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic