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Google’s Project Loon Hovers Over the Satellite Industry

By | August 1, 2013

      Every so often, someone points out that a satellite is just a very tall antenna tower – without the tower part. When looked at this way, it is obvious that there are other ways to put an antenna way up in the air (or vacuum). Indeed, any antenna height is a compromise between signal strength, coverage, and latency. Even geosynchronous satellites do not provide the tallest possible antenna as they cover only 40 percent of the Earth’s surface, while electromagnetic emissions from the sun cover half of the Earth’s surface at a given time.

      Google has announced its interest in the use of blimps and balloons at high altitudes to provide broadband service to undeveloped regions of Africa and Asia. While not an original idea, Google may be the first to have both the idea and the muscle to see it through to success. Similar proposals have been made for the use of long-duration, high-altitude drones as a broadcast system. Both of these technologies, are theoretically possible and would require extensions to current technologies. However, neither involves any obvious technological showstoppers.

      The question is whether this is a possible replacement for satellites. In fact, one analyst once told me that high altitude drones would easily replace satellite radio. I disagreed with his view then and I disagree now. As a purely broadcast platform, satellites are hard to beat. Maintaining a fleet of drones or balloons over various portions of a continental land mass is in many ways a return to over-the-air broadcast TV. It is certainly possible, but it is not clear to me that it would be more efficient, reliable or profitable.

      The satellite radio argument is a straw man, however. Google is planning to use these blimps to provide broadband connectivity, not to broadcast entertainment. Unlike satellite TV or radio, broadband involves a huge number of discreet and distinct two-way information streams. Although satellite broadband providers try to anticipate what content people will request and preposition it to reduce bandwidth use, there is still no comparison between TV or radio broadcasting and broadband interactivity.

      If satellite broadband does not gain a great benefit from the one-transmitter-to-many-receivers relationship that makes satellite audio and video so powerful, it does from using the GEO satellite footprint. If the market for satellite broadband was defined by distance from urban centers rather than by the ability to cover these pockets efficiently, wasting no resources over wired areas would make sense. However, as Hughes’ Senior Vice President Mike Cook points out, cable does not serve the rural area in which he lives – even though it is near the Washington, D.C. area. At home, he uses Hughes satellite service because his neighborhood is not dense enough to attract cable companies. It seems unlikely that the Washington, D.C. area would merit its own drone or blimp, but the same satellite that serves Mike also provides service to ranchers in Wyoming.

      Most satellite broadband offerings are fixed-location services in homes or small offices. Interestingly though, what Google plans to offer is based on low-cost smartphones running Google’s Android operating system. With this choice, Google is aiming at a market segment where satellite services have seen very little mass-market success. Mobile devices are much easier to build when the antenna they use is close to them, but a cell tower calls for considerable terrestrial infrastructure to provide backhaul and other support. With Google’s blimps, all of this can easily be handled by microwave or some other wireless technologies – without experiencing the time and expense of a terrestrial infrastructure. In this respect, the Google network is more like a satellite than a traditional terrestrial network. This is where the height of the antenna vs. signal strength equation is clearly biased against satellites.

      Google’s plans say nothing about the strength of satellites as a provider of broadband services. The company has aimed at the exact target that satellite has been unable to hit. The question of whether satellite broadband services can be replaced by high altitude atmospheric systems, will have to wait because the smart people at Google have gone for an easier target. This does not mean that atmospheric antennas cannot replace space-borne ones, which could indeed happen at some point in the future. What it does say to me is that the communications environment will continue to grow more diverse as the demands expand. But as long as satellites fill some portion of that demand better that their competitors, they will continue to thrive.

      Max Engel is an experienced satellite industry and telecom industry analyst and founder of The North Star Consultancy. He can be reached at maxnorthstar@gmail.com.