Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this week called on the administration of President Joe Biden to illuminate a plan to transmit the Internet to people in Cuba via high-altitude balloons when their government has blocked entry.
CAN THE INTERNET BE DELIVERED BY BALLOON?
Yes. For years, Google’s parent company Alphabet worked to perfect an online balloon sharing service called Loon. He closed that project in January, saying it was not commercially viable.
Prior to the closure, Loon balloons had provided services in mountainous areas in Kenya through a partnership with a local telecom, Telkom Kenya. The service also helped provide wireless communications in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria, which destroyed the island’s cellular network. Loon partnered with AT&T to make the service available.
HOW DOES THIS WORK?
Loon balloons were effectively cell towers the size of a tennis court. They flew 60,000 to 75,000 feet, or 11 to 14 miles, over Earth, far above commercial aircraft routes. Made from ordinary plastic polyethylene, the balloons used solar panels for electricity and could provide smartphone service in partnership with a local telecom.
Each balloon can serve thousands of people, the company said. But they had to be replaced every five months or so due to difficult conditions in the stratosphere. And balloons can be difficult to control. “Navigating balloons across the stratosphere has always been difficult,” wrote Salvatore Candido, who had been chief technology officer for Loon, in a blog post in December 2020. The company created algorithms that tracked wind patterns.
WHAT EQUIPMENT IS REQUIRED?
Loon had said that beyond the balloons themselves, it was necessary to integrate the network with a telecom to provide service and some ground equipment in the region. She also needed permission from local regulators – something the Cuban government is unlikely to provide.
CAN I CHANGE ONE NETWORK FOR MONEY?
Yes. Loon used multiple balloons to expand the connections beyond the necessary ground connection. In a 2018 test, Loon said the link was thrown 1,000 miles, or about 620 miles, over 7 balloons. Another time, she passed a wireless connection over 600 kilometers, or about 370 miles, between two balloons. Cuba and Florida are only about 100 miles[160 km]apart.
ARE THE ACHIEVEMENTS AVAILABLE?
But experts are not sure it would be so easy to set up an internet guerrilla service for Cuba this way. An unused spectrum band, or radio frequency, would be needed to transmit a connection to Cuba, and spectrum use is usually controlled by national governments. Anyone who proves this will need to find a spectrum block without which to intervene, said Jacob Sharony, of Mobius Consulting, a wireless and wireless consulting firm.
Balloon or drone networks are unlikely to be economical in the long run, said Tim Farrar of TMF Associates, a satellite communications consultant. While they are suitable for overcoming communications between disasters or war zones, the transmission capabilities of such networks are not great – “certainly not enough to serve the entire population of Cuba or anything like that.” , said Farrar.
Another challenge: The Cuban government may also try to block the signal.
WHO IS INVOLVED IN THE CUBA EFFORT?
DeSantis promoted the balloon idea Thursday along with two Cuban-American members of Congress from the Miami area, Reps Maria Salazar and Carlos Gimenez, FCC commissioner Brendan Carr and Cuban-American museum lawyer, businessman and director Marcell Felipe.
Felipe said he had talked for about two years with a defense contractor who could place such balloons in a cost-effective way in the airspace near Cuba, but declined to name the company. Felipe said his idea would involve transmitting the internet connection directly to cell phones on the island without the participation of any terrestrial provider. In comments to The Associated Press, Felipe claimed that it would not be possible for the Cuban government to block these balloon signals “in any significant way”, although he did not cite any evidence.
None of the supporters gave a cost estimate. Salazar said that if the federal government approves the plan, it believes it could be fully funded with contributions from members of the Cuban diaspora if needed.
WHAT IS INTERNET ACCESS IN CUBA?
Internet access in Cuba has been expensive and relatively rare until recently. Starting in December 2018, Cubans can access the Internet on their phones through the state telecom monopoly. More than half of Cubans today have access to the Internet.
But Human Rights Watch says the Cuban government restricts independent media and censors what is available to Cubans online. It disrupts internet access in a bid to advance protests.
– Tali Arbel, with contributions from Ian Mader