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Project Loon: Google’s bid to connect the globe with high-altitude balloons

Google has confirmed the existence of Project Loon: its attempt to provide remote areas of the world with internet access using high-altitude balloons.

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The existence of the project has been suspected for some time now, with Memeburn reporting that the internet giant might also be using blimps to carry out its ambitious project.

Google says it 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”.

The system, developed by the company’s secretive Google X research lab, is still in its very early days but the search behemoth says it will use 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”.

It hopes that the project will help provide internet connectivity to remote and underserved areas of the planet as well as acting as backup 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,” says Mike Cassidy, the project’s lead.

Google claims however that the technology is complex, but that it’s made things a lot simpler by allowing the balloons to roam freely.

According to Cassidy:

All we had to do was figure out how to control their path through the sky. We’ve now found a way to do that, using just wind and solar power: we can move the balloons up or down to catch the winds we want them to travel in.

The real issue now, the company says, is managing the balloons as a fleet so that each balloon is in the area you want it right when you need it. This is something it says it’s solving with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power. The latter of these is something that Google’s never going to be short on.

It has however asked for help with the project. “This experiment is going to take way more than our team alone,” says Cassidy.

This week it therefore started a pilot program in the Canterbury area of New Zealand with 50 testers trying to connect to the balloons.

“This is the first time we’ve launched this many balloons (30 this week, in fact),” says Cassidy, “and we’re going to learn a lot that will help us improve our technology and balloon design”.

Google plans to eventually expand the testing phase of the project to countries at the same latitude as New Zealand, including South Africa, Argentina, Australia, Chile, and Uruguay.

It says it’s also looking for partners in these countries and that it wants 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,” says Cassidy.

And that’s where the real genius of this technology lies. Google is not just connecting the unconnected to the internet with this project, but also taking its services and devices to a truly untapped market.

Cassidy cautions however that the technology is still in its very early stages and that it has a “long way to go”.

If Google manages to pull the project off however, it could a serious boon to emerging market countries with relatively low levels of internet connectivity. After all, research has shown that for every 10% gain in internet penetration, a country’s GDP growth rate increases by 1.4%.

One country where it could potentially have a serious impact is South Africa.

Luke Mckend, Country Director, Google South Africa, said: “If successful, Project Loon could be an affordable, scalable way to help address the digital divide in South Africa, a large country with many towns and communities still isolated from broadband Internet access”.

Google’s already active in unlocking internet access in that country, where it uses TV whitespaces to provide broadband to rural schools. While that provides internet access for people in a few isolated places, Project Loon could take it to a whole new level.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ll be thinking of all the cloud-based puns to avoid using when describing Project Loon to our fellow geeks.

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