Internet Blimps Could Offer an Alternative to Satellites

Coming soon to Africa

Key Takeaways

  • The African nation of Zanzibar could soon be getting internet coverage thanks to a new network of balloons. 
  • Two-thirds of the world's school-age children have no internet access at home. 
  • Balloons are needed for internet coverage in remote areas because existing deployment models are too time-consuming and expensive.
Someone looking up at an internet blimp.

World Mobile

The latest way to get the internet to underserved areas could be by balloon. 

Altaeros is launching an internet network using aerostats, blimp-like tethered balloons that it claims will provide near-blanket coverage across Zanzibar. Alphabet (Google's parent company) recently tabled a different effort to use balloons for the internet. But experts say the latest effort could succeed where Google failed. 

"[Alphabet's] project, in my view, did not account for the fact that in some rural areas, there are entire square miles with zero inhabitants," Mark Rapley, general manager of internet service provider KWIC Internet told Lifewire in an email interview. "Why spend money covering a place with high-quality access when nobody is likely to need access in that place."

Getting Higher

Altaeros’ SuperTower Aerostats are helium-filled tethered blimps connected to a base via power and fiber cables; they can carry a payload of 660 lb and power at a height of 1,000 feet. The company says it will have 120 internet sites available during the first half of the year, including the first balloon launch. 

The aerostat system consists of a helium-filled envelope and stabilizing fins. Each balloon is attached to a movable mooring platform with built-in software that adjusts the balloon’s position depending on wind conditions. 

“We’re on a journey to bring modern infrastructure to billions of un-served and under-served people around the world,” Altaeros CEO Ben Glass said in a news release

Rapley said that new solutions like aerostats are needed for internet coverage in remote areas because existing deployment models are too time-consuming and capital-intensive to provide a viable solution to the urgent need for improved remote connectivity. 

“Rural internet coverage, always an important issue, became increasingly important as the COVID-19 pandemic began,” he added. “The typical multi-year plan/permit/develop/deploy/install model of existing telecom construction is just not viable—not to mention the fact that the typical telecom construction model only works when there are lots of serviceable addresses in a relatively small area, which is not the case in most rural settings.”

Legacy architectures (4G and below), and now even 5G networks, have traditionally required a considerable amount of infrastructure to roll out, including a network of high-powered towers, base stations, as well as fiber connections back to regional and core data centers, Steve Carlini, the Vice President of Innovation and Data Center for Schneider Electric told Lifewire in an email interview.

Rural internet coverage, always an important issue, became increasingly important as the COVID-19 pandemic began.

​​”In highly populated areas, there usually are up to five carriers sharing the equipment cost distribution for each tower,” he added. “Lesser populated areas may only have one carrier, which has largely made it cost-prohibitive to extend the architecture to remote areas.”

Balloons to the Rescue

There's a desperate need for new internet solutions for remote areas. For example, according to UNICEF, two-thirds of the world's school-age children have no internet access at home.

"That so many children and young people have no internet at home is more than a digital gap—it is a digital canyon," Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, said in a news release. "Lack of connectivity doesn't just limit children and young people's ability to connect online. It prevents them from competing in the modern economy. It isolates them from the world. And in the event of school closures, such as those currently experienced by millions due to COVID-19, it causes them to lose out on education."

Remote and rural areas have been economically not attractive for Internet service providers, Jay Akin, the CEO of Mushroom Networks, a networking company, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"For a similar-sized area, you may have hundreds or sometimes even thousands of more customers for the same amount of infrastructure investment. As an example, compare Manhattan to a similarly sized small mid-western town," he added. "The latter will have 1% of the population of Manhattan even though the upfront infrastructure investment may be similar."

A n internet blimp in the sky.

Altaeros

But balloon internet service still faces challenges. Blimps can only stay in the air for around 14 days, and then they have to be refilled with helium, Carlini noted. Another obvious potential issue is the weather, especially when the blimps are forced to be grounded. 

"They are classified as non-rigid airships, and although unmanned, high wind could cause severe damage and force them out of the air," he added. "Not only that, but severe weather occurrences are often the times where connectivity is most vital."

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