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Google patent may reveal original intent of Project Loon

Google's Project Loon

A recently awarded patent for dynamically addressing bandwidth demand using internet access points attached to helium-filled balloons, may shed new light on how Google either intends to deploy (and monetise) innovations developed from Project Loon. As one might suspect, its use cases extend beyond humanitarian applications.

Project Loon, which launched earlier this summer and is currently being piloted in New Zealand, is the company’s attempt to experiment with delivering internet connectivity via specialised weather balloons, which are released into the stratosphere to float at around 20km above the Earth’s surface.

The balloons form a floating mesh network, so the signal bounces from balloon to balloon, then connects back to global internet on Earth; the firm says this method can deliver internet speeds roughly comparable to 3G.

The patent, which was filed in the spring of 2012 and awarded at the end of last week, focuses on a method for re-positioning the high-altitude balloons in order to cater to a projected change in bandwidth demand in a specified area.

The patent specifically references catering to changes in bandwidth demand relating to natural disasters such as a fire or an earthquake

“For example, a disaster event such as a fire could happen at any time at any location. Based on publicly accessible information (e.g., from news sources, social media, the internet), an inference could be made about a projected change in bandwidth demand due to the specific fire location and specific fire size,” it reads.

But the company also says that the balloons could be deployed to fill bandwidth in advance of large events that have the potential to hog available capacity, like conferences or concerts. Event organisers could request bandwidth capacity in advance, hence the name of the patent (“Balloon Clumping to Provide Bandwidth Requested in Advance”), in order to serve delegates and concert-goers.

Priority levels that determine where bandwidth is allocated could be made on an emergency vs. non-emergency basis, or could be associated with pricing and the number or quality of services provided: “For example, a basic level of communication services (e.g., limited download speeds, capped bandwidth, etc.) could be provided by the high-altitude balloon network for a basic fee. For an increased rate, a one-time payment, or another form of compensation, a higher level of services could be provided. The higher level of services could represent access to, or privileges for, higher data rates, removal of data cap amounts, etc.”

When Project Loon’s lead Mike Cassidy initially spoke about the project in June this year he focused on the potential for deploying these balloons-based networks in rural and hard to reach areas primarily, highlighting the major cost challenges associated with delivering connectivity to these regions. Indeed Google’s own marketing seems largely aligned with this vision for Project Loon.

But the recently awarded patent sheds light on Google’s original vision for the technology, which may eventually see it step in to charge a premium for its balloon-delivered connectivity services for large outdoor music festivals and the like.

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One comment

  1. Don Murray 19/11/2013 @ 9:19 pm

    I see this new way of communicating greatly useful in a disaster situation, ie. like the tornados that just hit Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. Or, the Typhoon that just wiped out half of the Philippines. This could bring communications back to a devastated area quickly and without much expense.

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