How do you deliver Internet access to the entire planet? The world could continue on its current course, gradually laying down the infrastructure and leaving large pieces of the planet without access (or at least access outside of a cell phone). But that could take decades. Google revealed this month that global Internet access is one of the “moonshot” programs the company is working on at the Google[x] lab, which is also working on self-driving car technology.
Project Loon’s goal is to build a ring of solar-powered, high-pressure balloons that hover 12.5 miles above the ground–twice as high as airplanes fly. The balloons deliver Internet access (at 3G-like speeds) on open-frequency radio bands. Anyone on the ground who’s in a building equipped with a special antenna can log on.
Google explains the mechanics behind a balloon-powered Internet network on its blog:
…the idea we pursued was based on freeing the balloons and letting them sail freely on the winds. 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. That solution then led us to a new problem: how to manage a fleet of balloons sailing around the world so that each balloon is in the area you want it right when you need it. We’re solving this with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power.
Google has already begun trials around Canterbury, New Zealand, where 50 testers in the area are trying to connect to 30 balloons. Next up: pilot testing in areas that have the same latitude as New Zealand.
Cynics may say that this is just an incredibly elaborate way for Google to grow its display ad business. But in the end, who cares? The Internet provides endless opportunities for education–and for places that are struck by disaster, it would be invaluable to have a back-up Internet system available for when the traditional lines go down.