An estimated 50 percent of Brazilians lack internet access, a figure that is disproportionally higher in hard-to-reach, rural areas that are not covered by fiber-optic cable networks. In response, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) is working to bring connectivity to isolated communities through internet-transmitting balloons.
These balloons, equipped with radio transceivers, would be anchored in strategic locations including Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, midwest and north-east regions. Acting as transmission towers, the balloons are anticipated to release wireless internet connections to a relatively large area at an affordable rate. During a test demonstration in Sao Paulo state in November 2013, INPE successively achieved internet coverage extending 30 kilometres from each balloon. The INPE’s Conectar project, as it is currently known, is now working to develop specialized technology that will enable the balloons to operate at high altitudes for long periods of time and minimize the risk of weather interference.
The Conectar project is not the first of its kind. In June 2013, Google launched a pilot of Project Loon, their innovative, internet-generating balloon technology in New Zealand. They are now in the process of refining the technology in California, with the aim of ultimately creating an uninterrupted ring of balloon-powered internet around the 40th southern parallel. In contrast to Conectar, Project Loon balloons float with the stratospheric winds, 20 kilometres above the earth and each cover a smaller region.
What makes Conectar an innovative endeavor is the use of a more targeted and publicly funded approach. Unlike Project Loon, INPE strives to strategically place balloons 300 meters off the ground in only the most isolated areas of the country. The government has acknowledged improved connectivity as an important development objective and is investing public dollars to make it happen. Brazil’s INPE has taken an existing, large scale idea and reconfigured it to affordably and effectively meet the needs of its population.
The INPE hopes to have a working system in place by the end of 2014. If successful, improved connectivity in Brazil’s densely forested regions could have positive development implications on a broader scale.
To learn more about Project Loon, visit http://www.google.com/loon/.