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The Latest Google 'Moonshot' Was Actually Introduced in Europe a Decade Ago


Europe successfully tested balloon-powered Internet nearly 10 years ago, and US companies are now pushing the idea forward.

Newswires exploded when Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) announced its Project Loon in mid-June. The latest "moonshot" -- the word Google uses for ambitious projects like self-driving cars or Glass -- aims to beam Internet access to inhabitants of remote and rural areas through a network of stratospheric balloons.

The test site for the new experiment is in New Zealand, but many have speculated that Google hopes to reach certain regions in Africa and other parts of the developing world with its balloon-powered Internet services.

What the news didn't tell you is that the ideas behind Loon were thoroughly explored about a decade ago via CAPANINA, the 6-million-euro EU research effort that operated from 2003 to 2006.

A joint effort of the partners in seven European countries and Japan, CAPANINA focused on "exploring the development of broadband communications capability from aerial platforms," according to its official website.

High-altitude aerial platforms (HAP) – namely balloons or zeppelins – floating at 65,000 feet were set to provide inexpensive broadband connections (up to 120 Mbit/s, significant speed even today) to customers on the ground.

Almost a decade before Google launched the first full-scale trial of its Project Loon in New Zealand, CAPANINA delivered successful results in Sweden.

Photo courtesy of CAPANINA.

In 2005, a balloon floating 78,700 feet over the Esrange Space Center in northern Sweden provided an Internet connection to the 37-mile zone below it on the ground at a blistering speed of up to 1.25 gigabits per second. (For comparison, Google Fiber operates at 1 gigabit per second.) Researchers also used conventional Wi-Fi technology that was able to provide data rates of up to 11 megabits per second.

When the CAPANINA project was discontinued in 2006, a number of other initiatives explored the potential for HAP as a rapidly deployable alternative to wired connections. The military tested balloon-powered communication networks in Afghanistan and the US.

Despite the EU's efforts, it was an American company that amassed probably the largest experience of commercial balloon-powered data services. Founded in 1997, the Chandler, Arizona-based Space Data Corporation has been operating its SkySite Network since 2004.

Space Data launches new SkySite Platforms -- balloons tricked out with special equipment -- every eight to 12 hours and provides robust data services to customers from transportation, oil and gas, utilities, field communications, and location services industries in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico, and on the Gulf of Mexico.

Google's Project Loon balloon over New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Google.

Google was reportedly interested in aquiring Space Data in 2008, but eventually the tech giant decided to pursue the balloon-powered Internet on its own.

While Space Data has successfully used its flying platforms for enterprise data transmission, broadband commercial balloon-powered Internet access still looks like a challenging engineering task. Tim Tozer, one of the scientists that participated in the CAPANINA project said that the mass of the equipment carried by balloons might become a serious issue when Google moves closer to commercial deployment.

Tozer said that he's skeptical about the commercial viability of the new Google Loon project, but he's very convinced that the future generations of HAPs could deliver robust Internet access at high speeds.

It looks like Google recognizes the challenges: On its official site, the company states that "it's too early to say" when the service becomes available, if at all.

Also see:

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