Have you ever been stuck somewhere with no access to the internet? It sucks, right? The internet is one of the most transformative and educational technologies of modern times. But did you know that for every person in the world who can get online, there are two other people who cannot? Access to a fast, reliable, and affordable internet connection is still out of reach to too many citizens of Earth. The problem is the many terrestrial obstacles to the internet around the world, including mountains, jungles, and archipelagos, not to mention serious cost challenges to hurdle. For example, in many countries located in the Southern Hemisphere the cost of being online is often larger than a month's income.
Solving such a geologically challenging problem will require exploring this issue from new angles. So Google is launching a moonshot attempt to provide balloon-powered internet access to all. Yes, balloons, and it's called Project Loon!
Google believes, "that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides internet access to the earth below. It’s very early days, but we’ve built a system that uses balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, to beam internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster. As a result, we hope balloons could become an option for connecting rural, remote, and underserved areas, and for helping with communications after natural disasters. The idea may sound a bit crazy—and that’s part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon—but there’s solid science behind it."
Project Loon: The Balloon-Powered Technology
Many projects over the years have looked at high-altitude venues as solutions to provide internet access to remote areas on the ground, but the cost and complexity of staying in one place was always too high. So Google is pursuing an idea that uses simple balloons that can sail freely through the winds. Google found a way to control their path through the sky using just wind and solar power, where they can move these balloons up and down to catch the proper winds to travel in. This solution presents an even greater challenge, though: how do you manage a fleet of constantly moving balloons to cover every spot in the world that needs internet?
Well, it's going to require some complex algorithms, computing power, and our help! The potential of this project could be game-changing and will take a truly global effort beyond what Google's team can handle alone. This week Google launched a pilot program in the Canterbury area of New Zealand, where 50 testers try to connect to Google's balloons. This was a major landmark for the campaign, as so many of Google's balloons had never tried to link up with so many receivers on the ground before. The trial will surely help Google improve upon its technology and balloon designs for future attempts.
Google is also looking to set up pilot projects in countries on the same latitude as New Zealand. It hopes to find partners to start the next phase of the project that could eventually bring internet access to all!
Google is ecstatic about the project:
We can’t wait to hear feedback and ideas from people who've been working for far longer than we have on this enormous problem of providing internet access to rural and remote areas. We imagine someday you'll be able to use your cell phone with your existing service provider to connect to the balloons and get connectivity where there is none today.
This is a bold but highly experimental technology with a ways to go. Keep flying with mission news by following Project Loon on Google+. As Google says, "onward and upward."
Besides being an extremely helpful project for humanity, Project Loon also raises some interesting questions about deliverables. What will happen to the balloons' signal in bad weather? What will happen to access of the balloons in countries where governments block citizens' internet? Tell us what you think in the comments.
Daniel is a social network architect, web developer, infographic designer, writer, speaker and founder of DashBurst. Full-time futurist and part-time content curator, always on the hunt for disruptive new technology, creative art and web humor.