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Will a new partnership with AT&T ensure Alphabet’s Loon project takes off?

For years, Alphabet-owned Loon has received a skeptical reaction to its audacious plan to provide cellular service by launching a constellation of radio-equipped balloons into the stratosphere. However, a new round of vendor support, as well as a new commitment by AT&T, indicates that Loon’s idea may not be as far-fetched as originally thought.

Loon’s concept – which has now been a pet project of Alphabet / Google for nearly ten years – is designed to allow mobile operators to extend their reach much further into remote, underserved locations and to enable operators to restore service following natural disasters that knock out terrestrial networks.

How the Loon system works

The Loon system works essentially by taking the traditional components of a cell tower and making them light and durable to float up to the stratosphere, 20 kilometers above Earth, and to survive the cold temperatures and high wind conditions that prevail there. For example:

  • Balloons the size of tennis courts are designed with sheets of lightweight polyethylene and built to last 100+ days before returning to Earth;
  • On-board equipment is designed to be energy-efficient and powered by solar panels;
  • Parachutes are deployed to make sure the balloons can land safely on Earth.

Thus far, Loon’s activities have taken the form of trials, including in emergency network deployments in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017 in conjunction with AT&T. However, that network took a month to get up and running – an unacceptably long wait during a disaster. By the time an earthquake hit Peru in May 2019, Loon reports it was able to launch coverage within days.

AT&T announces partnership

This improvement was likely one of the reasons AT&T announced in May 2020 that it has partnered with Loon to integrate its balloons into AT&T’s network. That announcement has implications for the US, where AT&T operates the FirstNet public safety network; but also in a host of other countries globally where operators that have a formal roaming relationship with AT&T will also be able to seamlessly integrate Loon network connectivity as well. Loon reports it now has rights to fly its balloons over more than 50 countries worldwide.

Loon’s appeal is growing

Slowly but surely, a number of other companies are joining Loon in looking to profit from stratospheric communications. In April, a consortium of companies including Loon, aircraft manufacturer Airbus, satellite operator Intelsat, and telecom equipment vendor Nokia published a white paper that predicted a multibillion-dollar market opportunity in Earth’s stratosphere that includes applications in telecommunications, high-resolution earth observation, and weather prediction and modelling.

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