How Google's SkyBender drones will deliver Internet access to remote areas

The company is quietly conducting tests of the technology, which could potentially transmit large amounts of data at speeds up to 40 times faster than currently 4G LTE networks, at a vast site in New Mexico developed for private spaceflight.

Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic via Reuters/File
Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnight Two and SpaceShip Two circle the airfield at Spaceport America in Upham, New Mexico on October 22, 2010. Google is paying the private spaceflight company to use its facilities to test a program nicknamed SkyBender, which uses solar-powered drones to transmit high-speed Internet using high-frequency radio waves, a new report reveals.

In hangars previously used for private spaceflight prototypes in New Mexico, Google is quietly testing whether solar-powered drones can deliver high-speed Internet service from the air at a much faster rate than traditional cell towers, the Guardian reports.

The project, codenamed SkyBender, uses transceivers that can send and receive signals using high-frequency millimeter wave radio transmissions, which can potentially transmit gigabits of data per second, up to 40 times faster than 4G LTE cell networks, the current mobile standard. The high-frequency transmissions have often been proposed as part of a faster 5G standard.

Because millimeter wave technology uses higher frequencies, it has the potential to carry more data and operate in a less crowded part of the radio wave spectrum, making data-hungry services, such as streaming video sites, available to a wider group of users.

SkyBender follows other efforts launched by tech companies to improve Internet access in poor and rural regions across the world, including Google’s own Project Loon, which uses balloons to expand the reach of LTE networks, and Elon’s Musk proposed Space Internet, which would use a network of thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth to beam wireless Internet across the globe.

But there are some drawbacks to the technology behind SkyBender — high-frequency transmissions have a short wavelength, meaning they can’t travel as far and can be blocked by obstacles such as buildings, walls, and windows – and even rain and moisture in the air.

The market for lower frequencies that aren't already being used — so-called “beachfront property,” which can travel longer distances and through buildings — is often highly competitive. An auction held by the Federal Communications Commission last year netted $45 billion from wireless carriers.

“The huge advantage of millimeter wave is access to new spectrum because the existing cellphone spectrum is overcrowded. It’s packed and there’s nowhere else to go,” Jacques Rudell, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the Guardian.

But in order to get millimeter waves to work from a drone, Professor Rudell says, Google must experiment with using highly-focused transmissions from what’s known as a phased array. That’s a difficult task that also burns a lot of power, Rudell told the paper.

Fortunately, Google is well-positioned to conduct a variety of tests, using both high-altitude, solar-powered drones built by its own Titan division and an “optionally-piloted” aircraft called Centaur.

The company has obtained exclusive use of runways at Spaceport America, which previously housed a private spaceflight effort by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and built a dedicated flight control center at the nearby Spaceflight Operations Center, according to documents obtained by the Guardian.

The SkyBender tests reportedly cost $300,000, a boon to Spaceport America, which suffered a setback when Virgin Galactic essentially abandoned its terminal after the crash of a prototype SpaceShipTwo vehicle in California in 2014. The spaceflight company is now set to unveil its new SpaceShipTwo at the facility this month and to begin flights there in 2018.

“We are ramping up our marketing activities and expect to earn about $4 million in fiscal year 2017, but this is just not enough to operate the spaceport. Thus, we are asking the legislature for $2.8 million,” said Christine Anderson, Spaceport America’s chief executive, in a blog post last month, noting the spaceport has generated more than 2,000 jobs and has a staff of 50 split between New Mexico’s Spaceport Authority and the private Virgin Galactic.

In order to use its hangars and the Gateway to Space Terminal, Google is also paying Virgin Galactic $1,000 a day, the Guardian reports.

The tech giant isn’t the first to make use of millimeter wave technology for Internet signals — DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, began a program called Mobile Hotspots in 2014 to test how the technology could provide fast Internet for troops in remote locations.

While Google has permission to test its drones and millimeter wave technology through July from the Federal Communications Commission, seeing drone-powered Internet in common use could still be a ways off. But the technology holds promise to solve other issues, including spotty Wi-Fi signals in some parts of the country.

As an increasing number of Americans have come to depend exclusively on smartphones to go online — in part because of the high cost of broadband Internet, the Pew Research Center has found — services such as Google’s SkyBender could potentially provide a more widely-available alternative, though who will pay for the service is still unclear.

“SkyBender may never be a primary source of Internet access for most of us – it’s hard to beat the ubiquitous nature of our systems of in-built copper wiring – but its not hard to see it as a next-level solution for disaster areas, refugee sitations, or, especially, large-crowd events like the Super Bowl,” notes Forbes’ Matt Hickey.

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