Balloons could bring internet to Brazilian rainforest
Space institute to float internet-transmitting balloons over remote Amazon regions to help rural communities get online
Internet could be coming to the Brazilian rainforest, by balloon
Catarina Chagas, for SciDev, part of the Guardian development network
theguardian.com, Thursday 9 January 2014 14.48 GMT
It is one thing to say the internet can broaden people’s horizons – but a Brazilian project is literally aiming for the skies, putting isolated communities online using balloons that transmit internet signals.
The Conectar (Portuguese for “connect”) project, which is being overseen by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), is not the first to launch balloons in an effort to bring internet-transmitting stations to hard-to-reach locations such as rainforests.
In June 2013, Google ran a pilot test for a similar venture known as the Loon project. Some in the development community say the project is misguided as it fails to address poor people’s most urgent needs.
But Jose Ângelo Neri, an INPE researcher, says his organisation’s project and the Google scheme should not be compared as they are different technologies and independent proposals.
“The balloon will work as a transmission tower,” he says. “Being at an altitude above conventional towers – 300 metres from the ground – it will reach a large area through wireless connections.”
While Google’s project uses balloons floating freely 20km above the Earth, each one covering a small area, Conectar balloons will be anchored at strategic points.
The new system will be especially useful in rural locations that are not covered by fibre-optic cable networks, says Neri. Regions such as the Amazon, north-east and midwest Brazil will then be able to connect to the internet, he says.
In November, INPE ran a test in São Paulo state, a region well covered by broadband internet. According to Neri, the test used equipment that was not designed for use in balloons, but it still had exciting results, including the demonstration of a coverage area that spanned 30km from each balloon.
“Now we have to develop specialised technology and to improve the balloon itself,” Neri says. The balloons will eventually carry adapted transmitting hardware that is light and can operate at high altitude, he adds.
Neri expects INPE to test such equipment in a remote area in June, and to have a working system in north-east Brazil by the end of the year.
The balloons may have some limitations, such as vulnerability to bad weather, but Neri says the institute is working to minimise interference from lightning and wind.
Luiz Alencar Reis da Silva Mello, an associate professor in telecommunications at the Pontificial Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, says it is important to have national institutions working on this kind of project because it is unlikely to be a major interest for large international companies.
Other countries have tested the idea of using balloons as base stations in areas with low population densities, or even to complement other technologies in urbanised regions, Da Silva Mello says.
“It is a good option to provide connectivity in remote areas and can cover relatively large areas at a cost much lower than that of terrestrial stations or satellite systems.”