Exactly what Loon is up to remains confidential, but the Alphabet company submitted filings last week seeking permission to conduct a market trial in the 71-76 GHz and 81-86 GHz bands using High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) as relay transmission points in Puerto Rico. The purpose: to deliver broadband service to maritime vessels.
Loon, formerly known as Project Loon that started out in Google, asked the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) that information related to its experimental license application be treated as confidential and not subject to public inspection. It said disclosure of certain information would cause significant economic and competitive harm.
However, it did talk about how it’s working to bring HAPS-powered internet access to unserved and underserved communities around the world. Loon’s unmanned HAPS balloons are capable of months-long flight at altitudes of about 20 kilometers. Depending on the application and configuration, Loon’s balloons may be equipped with an energy-efficient communications payload that uses standard LTE frequencies for the user access links or, alternatively, they may be equipped with E-band payloads for feeder link service.
Loon already has done quite a bit of work in Puerto Rico after storms ravaged the island and wreaked havoc on communications equipment. For example, in 2017, it was delivering basic internet service to thousands of people after Hurricane Maria.
When configured for feeder link service, Loon’s balloons backhaul aggregated end user traffic to the internet from local area networks using LTE or Wi-Fi for last-mile connectivity. Loon told the FCC that its HAPS balloons can provide service over 5,000 square kilometers using standard LTE frequencies to communicate with terrestrial user equipment. Its balloons using E-band frequencies can establish point-to-point links exceeding 1,000 kilometers by interconnecting multiple balloons.
“Given Loon’s ability to expeditiously launch HAPS balloons that cover a large geographic footprint for end user or backhaul communications, our technology has already demonstrated itself as a valuable transmission medium to restore mission critical communications after natural disasters,” the company wrote.
It’s a long way from what was once considered little more than a science experiment. Loon’s engineers did everything from wearing fuzzy socks in the balloon-making process to figuring out how to steer them in the stratosphere.
Loon recently commissioned a study by Signals Research Group (SRG) that found that Loon has a modest impact on the existing terrestrial LTE network where its balloons are flying. Loon needs to partner with a local carrier in any given location in order for it to work, so the study could alleviate any concerns they might have.