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Internet balloons take to the sky

Source: SciDev - Fri, 10 Jan 2014 09:39 GMT
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It is one thing to say the internet can broaden people’s horizons — but a Brazilian project now literally aims to take to the skies, putting isolated communities online using balloons that transmit internet signals.

The Conectar (Portuguese for Connect) project, which is being overseen by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), is not the first to launch balloons in an effort to bring internet-transmitting stations to hard-to-reach locations such as rainforests.

In June 2013, Google ran a pilot test for a similar venture known as the Loon project. However, some in the development community say the project is misguided as it fails to address poor people’s most urgent needs.

But Jose Ângelo Neri, an INPE researcher, says his organisation’s project and the Google scheme shouldn’t be compared like for like as they are “different technologies and independent proposals”.

“The balloon will work as a transmission tower,” he says. “Being at an altitude above conventional towers — 300 metres from the ground — it will reach a large area through wireless connections.”

“It is a good option to provide connectivity in remote areas and can cover relatively large areas at a cost much lower than that of terrestrial stations or satellite systems.”

Luiz Alencar Reis da Silva Mello, Pontificial Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro

While Google’s project uses balloons floating freely 20 kilometres above the earth, each one covering a small area, Conectar balloons will be anchored at strategic points.

The new system will be especially useful in rural locations that are not covered by existing fibre-optic cable networks, says Neri. Regions such as the Amazon, northeast and midwest Brazil will then be able to connect to the internet, he says.

In November, INPE ran a test in Sao Paulo state, a region already well covered by broadband internet. According to Neri, the test used equipment that was not designed for use in balloons — but it still had exciting results, including the demonstration of a coverage area that spanned 30 kilometres from each balloon.

“Now we have to develop specialised technology and to improve the balloon itself,” Neri says. The balloons will eventually carry adapted transmitting hardware that is light and can operate at high altitude, he adds.

Neri expects INPE to test such equipment in a remote area in June and to have a working system in northeast Brazil by the end of the year.

The balloons may have some limitations, such as vulnerability to bad weather, but Neri says the institute is working to minimise interference from lightning and wind.

Luiz Alencar Reis da Silva Mello, an associate professor in telecommunications at the Pontificial Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, says it is important to have national institutions working on this kind of project because it is unlikely to be a major interest for large international companies.

Other countries have already tested the idea of using balloons as base stations in areas with low population densities or even to complement other technologies in urbanised regions, da Silva Mello says.

“It is a good option to provide connectivity in remote areas and can cover relatively large areas at a cost much lower than that of terrestrial stations or satellite systems.”

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