Project Loon as complementary infrastructure
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Project Loon as complementary infrastructure


How X’s revolutionary solution is set to tackle coverage gaps where conventional infrastructure models don’t work

Project Loon is the revolutionary connectivity solution being developed by X, the R&D subsidiary or “moonshot factory” of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. A network of balloons, travelling on the edge of space, Project Loon seeks to connect people in rural and remote areas, fill coverage gaps and bring people back online after disasters. TowerXchange were delighted to speak to Project Loon’s Strategy and Operations Director, Mauro Goncalves de Oliveira Filho to understand Project Loon’s vision and progress and learn how it aims to complement other infrastructure solutions.

TowerXchange: What is Project Loon about?

Mauro Goncalves de Oliveira Filho, Strategy and Operations Director, Project Loon, X:

Project Loon is a network of stratospheric balloons designed to provide a cost-effective way for mobile network operators to extend their LTE network connectivity to millions more people in rural and remote areas across the world.

We believe that high altitude balloons are uniquely positioned to help mobile network operators bring connectivity to these areas. Floating roughly 20kms up in the stratosphere, Loon balloons are far enough away from the ground to provide a significantly larger coverage footprint per unit, at roughly 5,000km² per balloon. This helps overcome some of the economic challenges of building infrastructure in areas where communities are far more geographically dispersed. But Loon balloons are also close enough to the earth that they are able to deliver that connectivity direct to the standard LTE phones of our partner’s customers.

TowerXchange: What stage is it at, what trials have been conducted, what developments are being focused on?

Mauro Goncalves de Oliveira Filho, Strategy and Operations Director, Project Loon, X:

Over the last few years we have been focused on research and development, conducting a series of small technical trials with multiple network operators around the world to co-develop an infrastructure solution that can seamlessly integrate into a partner’s network.

Earlier this year, we worked with Telefónica in Peru to respond to widespread flooding by starting to deliver balloon-powered connectivity to thousands of users across 40,000km² of affected areas in the country. Operating at this scale in the real world is allowing us to quickly refine the technology, and this is where our focus is at the moment.

TowerXchange: What is Project Loon’s niche and how big is the addressable market that it is looking to target? What work still needs to be done to map this out?

Mauro Goncalves de Oliveira Filho, Strategy and Operations Director, Project Loon, X:

Even by the most conservative estimates there are over a billion people who live completely outside the reach of mobile broadband connectivity. Additionally, many hundreds of millions more are covered only intermittently - whether due to frequent movement between disparate areas of coverage, or by residing along the fringes of current coverage areas where they experience severely intermittent service, particularly during periods of high demand. Due to the relative proximity to areas where there is coverage, these areas already have significant device penetration and demand for connectivity, but these customers are currently severely underserved.

In terms of mapping out this opportunity, data for network planning is of course less comprehensive and well-documented in many of these areas. We’ve been working to understand this more, by using new data solutions to analyse population distribution, income levels and other metrics useful for network planning - but also by getting boots on the ground, conducting research in exactly the type of areas we want to help network operators extend coverage to.

Additionally, like many other infrastructure companies focused on rural and last mile connectivity, we are discussing a number of different potential business models with network operators that aim to minimise some of the commercial risk in bringing connectivity to areas where there are more unknowns in terms of the overall market opportunity.


TowerXchange: How has the initiative been received by MNO partners and governments to date; what appetite do you see amongst the broader community?

Mauro Goncalves de Oliveira Filho, Strategy and Operations Director, Project Loon, X:

We are incredibly grateful for the supportive and encouraging response we have received to date. We share a common goal with many governments and partners worldwide, which is to provide more connectivity to more people in more places. Loon’s potential to deliver coverage instantly to vast swathes of land in a given country can help reach universal service targets set by governments. Additionally, because our balloons drift across many different countries around the world, we require the support of multiple intergovernmental organisations to enable us to operate effectively at scale. Last year ICAO, the United Nation’s civil aviation body, acknowledged that Loon is consistent with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, and encouraged countries to enable flight in their airspace.

Of course, MNOs have goals that are directly aligned with Project Loon’s offering - expanding the coverage area of their network and maximising the utilization of their spectrum investments, and do so in a way that makes sense economically. This has meant we’ve been able to find innovative partners that have been willing to test the technology and work with Project Loon. Since recently demonstrating the ability of Project Loon to deliver connectivity at scale, we’re seeing this support now turn into a real appetite to begin rolling out the solution in more countries around the world.

TowerXchange: How do you see Loon complementing other forms of coverage? Will there be requirements for other forms of rural coverage once Loon is up and running? Do you envision that it has the potential to support urban coverage? 

Mauro Goncalves de Oliveira Filho, Strategy and Operations Director, Project Loon, X:

We think that the fact that so many people globally are still outside of mobile broadband coverage areas shows that this is not an easy problem to solve, and most certainly won’t be solved by any one company or technology alone. Indeed, much of our work with MNOs has involved demonstrating that Loon connectivity can seamlessly co-exist with their current and planned cell-tower coverage - and in many instances even help guide their planned cell-tower rollout.

With regards to urban coverage specifically, we think there is a huge opportunity for Loon to be useful on the fringes of urban networks. From our user research in multiple markets we’ve seen just how intermittent and unpredictable coverage can become the further you move from the centre of cell-site coverage, and just how far customers are forced to go - and in fact do go - just to get a usable connection. This is currently a huge missed opportunity for operators, where they have an active customer base, but limited availability currently caps usage way below the actual level of demand in these areas.


TowerXchange: What appetite do you have to work with other MNOs and what attitude do the companies need to have to get involved in Loon at this stage in its development?

Mauro Goncalves de Oliveira Filho, Strategy and Operations Director, Project Loon, X:

We are always open to discussing implementation with any network operator globally. Of course, we are a new technology, and a unique one at that! Add this to the fact that the market in unserved areas is much less familiar to operators, and it is probably unsurprising that we’ve had the most success with MNOs and teams within those MNOs who have a much more innovative attitude. That little bit more flexibility and a willingness to work with us as a technology partner as we continue to improve our offering over time has been critical in getting our technology to the point it’s at today.

Mauro Goncalves de Oliveira Filho will join the speaking faculty at the TowerXchange Meetup Africa & Middle East, a networking forum connecting infrastructure providers addressing mobile coverage and connectivity across the region. Bringing together mobile network operators, independent tower companies, investors and the supply chain, the Meetup will be held at the Sandton Convention Centre on 3-4 October 2017. For more information click here

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