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Interview with Max Kamentsky, Senior Product Manager at Loon

In the lead up to this year's event, we caught up with Max Kamentsky to learn about Loon, a part of Google's parent company, what they are working on currently and the opportunities that lie ahead for satellite. 

Don't miss his keynote presentation, Loon: High-Altitude Balloon-Based Internet, and What it Means for the Satellite Industry at 9:10 on Thursday 20th September.

Here's what he had to say...

Could you tell us a little bit about Loon?

Billions of people around the world are still without internet access. Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to deliver connectivity to people in unserved and underserved communities around the world.

Loon operates a fleet of balloons to provide Internet coverage to users on the ground. We have flown over 30 million km of test flights to date since the project began - with one of our record-breaking balloons surviving for 198 days aloft in the stratosphere.

Loon partners with mobile network operators to enable people to access the internet directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. Data is transmitted up to the nearest balloon from one of our ground stations, relayed across the balloon network, and then back down directly to users’ LTE phones on the ground. Loon has redesigned the most essential components of a cell tower to be light and durable enough to be carried by a balloon 20 km up in the stratosphere. All the equipment is highly energy-efficient and is powered entirely by solar energy, and each balloon has a coverage area of 5000 square kilometers.

Our custom-built Autolaunchers are designed to launch Loon balloons safely and reliably at scale. Huge side panels provide protection from the wind as the balloon is filled and lifted into launch position, and then the crane is pointed downwind to smoothly release the balloon up into the stratosphere. Each crane is capable of filling and launching a new balloon into the Loon network every 30 minutes.

Loon balloons travel approximately 20 km above the Earth's surface in the stratosphere, well above airplanes, wildlife, and weather events. In the stratosphere winds are stratified, and each layer of wind varies in speed and direction. To get balloons to where they need to go, Loon uses predictive models of the winds and decision-making algorithms to move each balloon up or down into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to provide coverage where it’s needed.

The Loon team tracks the location of every balloon using GPS, coordinating directly with the local air traffic control. When a balloon is ready to be taken out of service, the lift gas keeping the balloon aloft is released and the parachute deploys automatically to bring the balloon to the ground in a controlled descent over sparsely populated areas. Our recovery teams then collect the equipment for reuse and recycling.

What are you working on currently?

When devastating floods hit Peru in early 2017, Loon was planning to launch early service trials with a handful of users.  We had a choice between continuing with our prior plan or trying to do something bigger to help people affected by this natural disaster connect with their families and loved ones.  We chose the latter. With the help of our friends and partners at Telefonica, SES Networks, and Nokia, we connected over one hundred thousand people in Peru. Similarly, we ended up connecting over two hundred thousand people in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in late 2017.

These campaigns stress-tested our systems and helped to instill confidence in the technology and product.  We are now focusing our efforts on rolling out commercial services together with mobile telecommunications providers.  We recently announced that we will be launching commercial services in Kenya in 2019 together with our partner Telkom Kenya.  We are in discussions with other providers in other countries.

Finally, we are excited about the potential standalone benefits of some of the individual technologies that Loon has built in order to enable our overall system to work.  For example, Loon has developed software defined networking and resource management technology that orchestrates our entire airborne and terrestrial network, while taking into account the changes in the spatial relationship among the balloon network nodes and weather effects that can throttle throughput.  The challenge is similar to managing a network of LEO or MEO satellites, which are also required to cooperate with legacy GEO networks. Loon has spent years developing this network management software, and it powers our network today. The software is platform agnostic in the sense that it’s designed to work with satellites, balloons, other high altitude platforms, and terrestrial nodes.  Naturally, we are excited about the benefits this might bring to satellite operators and are engaging with some operators today.

What are your long-term goals at Loon (5-10 years' time)?

Loon’s mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technologies.  Our focus is integrating with mobile network operators worldwide to enable us to deliver on this mission in the coming years.

Where do the greatest opportunities for the satellite industry lie at this moment in time (July 2018)?

The world has shown an insatiable appetite for data, with global internet traffic in 2020 projected to be almost 100 times higher than what it was in 2005.  This is evident in the satellite industry as well and is powering the drive behind new LEO/MEO constellations and high-throughput GEOs.

With this growing desire for data and billions of people still lacking any access at all, there is a need for many different solutions that can be deployed to help address this problem.  We believe Loon is an optimal platform for enabling our partners to extend their networks to reach large numbers of un-connected and under-connected communities.

We also believe Loon can play a role in supporting and optimizing other potential solutions to this problem.  For example, Loon can help satellite operators provide additional capacity for high-throughput areas and enable LEO operators to offer services prior to full constellation deployment.  And our temporospatial software defined networking software can operate the entire GEO, MEO, LEO, and balloon heterogeneous network, even integrating assets from high altitude solar aircraft providers.

What are you looking forward to most with regards to participating in the VSAT Global event in London in September?

First of all, we are here to learn. The deep experience satellite service providers have from decades of operating provides an incredible opportunity for Loon to learn from the best as we build our long-term business.  

Second, we are looking to collaborate.  Whether it’s in the field of network orchestration or offering joint products, we are looking to deepen our partnership with the satellite industry for the benefit of all parties involved.