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Billions of people could get online for the first time thanks to helium balloons that Google will soon send over many places cell towers don’t reach.
Availability: 1-2 years
A reliable and cost-effective way to beam Internet service from the sky to places lacking it.
Why It Matters
Internet access could expand educational and economic opportunities for the 4.3 billion people who are offline.
You climb 170 steps up a series of dusty wooden ladders to reach the top of Hangar Two at Moffett Federal Airfield near Mountain View, California. The vast, dimly lit shed was built in 1942 to house airships during a war that saw the U.S. grow into a technological superpower. A perch high in the rafters is the best way to appreciate the strangeness of something in the works at Google—a part of the latest incarnation of American technical dominance.
On the floor far below are Google employees who look tiny as they tend to a pair of balloons, 15 meters across, that resemble giant white pumpkins. Google has launched hundreds of these balloons into the sky, lofted by helium. At this moment, a couple of dozen float over the Southern Hemisphere at an altitude of around 20 kilometers, in the rarely visited stratosphere—nearly twice the height of commercial airplanes. Each balloon supports a boxy gondola stuffed with solar-powered electronics. They make a radio link to a telecommunications network on the ground and beam down high-speed cellular Internet coverage to smartphones and other devices. It’s known as Project Loon, a name chosen for its association with both flight and insanity.
Google says these balloons can deliver widespread economic and social benefits by bringing Internet access to the 60 percent of the world’s people who don’t have it. Many of those 4.3 billion people live in rural places where telecommunications companies haven’t found it worthwhile to build cell towers or other infrastructure. After working for three years and flying balloons for more than three million kilometers, Google says Loon balloons are almost ready to step in.
The helium balloons are inflated to the size they reach in the stratosphere. The “ballonets” inside are filled with air or emptied to make the balloon fall or rise.
It is odd for a large public company to build out infrastructure aimed at helping the world’s poorest people. But in addition to Google’s professed desires to help the world, the economics of ad-supported Web businesses give the company other reasons to think big. It’s hard to find new customers in Internet markets such as the United States. Getting billions more people online would provide a valuable new supply of eyeballs and personal data for ad targeting. That’s one reason Project Loon will have competition: in 2014 Facebook bought a company that makes solar-powered drones so it can start its own airborne Internet project.
Google’s planet-scale social-engineering project is much further along. In tests with major cellular carriers, the balloons have provided high-speed connections to people in isolated parts of Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. Mike Cassidy, Project Loon’s leader, says the technology is now sufficiently cheap and reliable for Google to start planning how to roll it out. By the end of 2015, he wants to have enough balloons in the air to test nearly continuous service in several parts of the Southern Hemisphere. Commercial deployment would follow: Google expects cellular providers to rent access to the balloons to expand their networks. Then the number of people in the world who still lack Internet access should start to shrink, fast.
“HARMLESS SCIENCE EXPERIMENT.” That’s what was written on the boxes carried by the balloons that the secretive Google X lab began to launch over California’s Central Valley in 2012, along with a phone number and the promise of a reward for safe return. Inside the boxes was a modified office Wi-Fi router. The balloons were made by two seamsters hired from the fashion industry, from supplies bought at hardware stores.
The 15-kilogram box carried by a Loon balloon has computers that act on commands from flight engineers, as well as equipment to transmit Internet connectivity to the ground below.
Project Loon is now much less like a science project. In 2013, Google began working with a balloon manufacturer, Raven Aerostar, which expanded a factory and opened another to make the inflatable “envelope” for the balloons. That June, Google revealed the existence of the project and described its first small-scale field trials, in which Loon balloons provided Internet service to people in a rural area of New Zealand. In 2014, Project Loon focused on turning a functional but unwieldy prototype into technology that’s ready to expand the world’s communication networks.
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