Google has a truly sky-high idea for connecting billions of people to the internet – 19 kilometres in the air to be exact – through giant helium balloons circling the globe that are equipped to beam Wi-Fi signals down below.
Google has revealed that it has 30 balloons floating over New Zealand to provide free internet access to disaster-stricken, rural or poor areas. Eventually, as the balloons move across the stratosphere, consumers in participating countries along the 40th parallel in the Southern Hemisphere could tap into the service.
The technology will be trialled in Australia next year, possibly in Tasmania.
Called Project Loon, the experimental program was hatched by engineers at the company’s top-secret Google X laboratory in Silicon Valley, California, which invented driverless cars and Google Glass. Some of those technologies won’t immediately – or ever – make money for the company. Google said it pursues these “moon shot” ideas with the aim of solving big problems and creating breakthrough technologies that ultimately will bring more users to their services.
“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,” the company said.
These projects also help Google extend its sprawling reach into the lives of global internet users, amid an intensifying debate over internet privacy. Already, the company has the leading web search, email service and internet video site, while its Android mobile software has become the most popular in the world.
These tools have enabled Google to track a wide range of consumer behaviours, which the company sells to advertisers. In recent weeks, privacy advocates have raised concerns over how much of this data is being shared with the US government.
The balloons also represent another of Google’s forays into the telecommunications business. The company has been setting up Google Fibre internet connections in Kansas City, Austin, Texas and elsewhere that offer speeds 100 times faster than what most consumers have today. Google also offers free Wi-Fi in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan and a few other US cities. Top executives have long complained of the slow expansion of web connections as a bottleneck to the growth of its business.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key unveiled the technology on Saturday from the Air Force Museum in Wigram, Christchurch.
The design lab plans to trial the internet balloons, which can stay in the air for up to 100 days, in Australia by mid-2014 and also in Argentina.
The Southern Hemisphere, specifically the 40th parallel south, has been chosen for the trial partly because of the stratospheric conditions, with the balloons movements controlled from the ground by harnessing winds and solar power.
The only part of Australia on the 40th parallel is north Tasmania – so that appears the likely destination for the Australian trial.
Google X director of product management Mike Cassidy said Google would hold discussions with the Australian government before trialling Loon.
It remains unclear if the technology will complement the National Broadband Network, which was conceived in part to ensure the entire nation has fast web access.
Cassidy said the aim is to provide much cheaper internet connections around the world. In many African nations, for example, monthly internet costs are higher than monthly salaries.
“We are focused on an enormous problem, and we don’t think we have the one solution today,” he said. “But we think we can help and start having a discussion on how to get five billion people in remote areas” connected to the internet.
The thin plastic balloons hovering over New Zealand – about 15 metres in diameter and barely visible to Earth-bound spectators – use a mix of highly sophisticated and basic methods to deliver internet connections of at least 3G speeds.
The high-pressure balloons carry antennas, radios, solar-power panels and navigation equipment that talk to specialised antennas on rooftops below. But they do not have motors, and their travel largely depends on wind patterns.
One of the founders of the project, Richard DeVaul, said the balloon internet was “green technology”.
“All of the energy is renewable. The balloons won’t be visible from the air and they won’t interfere with aeroplane systems. We’ve gone out of our way to make sure they’re highly visible and easy to track.”
The balloons currently have a lifetime of a few weeks, but DeVaul believed in future they could last hundreds of days.
DeVaul said Project Loon grew out of huge connectivity problems worldwide.
“Two thirds of the world – 4.8 billion people – still don’t have the internet. It’s not that we don’t know how to provide internet access, it’s how to provide it over a large area in a cost effective way for everybody in the world,” he said.
“It’s not just the far reaches of the world that don’t have the internet. Parts of New Zealand don’t either. This is a crazy idea but we might be able to do it.”
The cluster of balloons provide a kind of drifting internet network in the stratosphere, moving at a snail’s pace and lasting more than 100 days in the air. As long as a balloon is within a 38-kilometre radius, people would be able to tap into the network, Google said. Much cheaper than satellite technology – Google would not reveal specifics – the balloons could provide service in remote regions or perhaps an area that has lost its communications because of a violent storm.
That’s partly why the firm picked Christchurch for its first test case, in tribute to the city’s struggle in the wake of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.
Google needs permission from local governments to tap public airwaves. But if the balloons drift into the wrong areas, the engineers can use GPS and other telecom technology common among weather balloons, to adjust their flight.
That the balloons are aimed at the Southern Hemisphere illustrates the importance of Africa and South America to Google’s future growth, some analysts said.
“There is an enormous problem of affordability of broadband access in much of the developing world,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior associate at Global Partners Digital, a technology policy consulting group. “We have an explosion of wireless devices everywhere, even among the poorest nations, but in most instances there is limited access to the internet.”
About two-thirds of the world’s population is not connected to the internet. In developing nations, the portion is larger. About seven out of eight people in emerging market economies have no internet access, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a multinational organisation of communications regulators.
Balloons have been used for hundreds of years for military communications. But to make the inflatable internet networks work, Google engineers had to overcome significant technical hurdles.
The balloons fly in the stratosphere, twice as high as aeroplanes, and engineers had to find a way to control their direction. So they came up with navigational controls that move balloons up and down to find altitudes where wind is traveling in desired directions. They also wanted to keep the balloons in clusters to ensure consistent connectivity to a given area.
All of this was done in secret for two years.
“I couldn’t even tell my parents about it, so I’m excited for them to know today,” said Cassidy.
● The balloons are filled with helium, run by solar power and are about 15 metres in diameter when inflated.
● Technicians can control the movement of a balloon by shifting them up or down on different air currents. A machine on the balloon allows air in and out, controlling altitude.
● The balloons use antennae to connect to the internet via ground stations on the earth. They can then transmit the internet via their antennae within a 40 kilometre diameter.
● Users have a special antenna, which will connect to the internet of any balloon flying overhead.
● The balloons drift through the stratosphere connecting with any ground station and beaming internet to any user’s antenna they come across.
● Each balloon can provide internet on the ground to an area of over 1200 square kilometres.
● The balloons cannot stay in one place, so in the future the idea would be to have so many balloons in the sky that coverage is constant.
● The balloons currently have an expected life-span of a few weeks but future technology could see them last for hundreds of days.
● The balloons are tracked by a GPS system and a transponder so air traffic control know where they are at all times.
- Australia Internet Censorship and Sedition Laws (craighill.net)
- Google floats balloons for free Wi-Fi (theage.com.au)
- Google Wants to Use Balloons to Cover the World in Wi-Fi (gizmodo.com)
- Google’s ‘internet balloons’ offer remote areas web access (telegraph.co.uk)
- Project Loon: Internet for everyone in The Planet (financearmageddon.blogspot.com)
- Google unveils latest moonshot: balloon-powered Internet access (9to5google.com)
- Google X Announces Project Loon: Balloon-Powered Internet For Rural, Remote And Underserved Areas (techcrunch.com)
- Google Unveils Project Loon: Internet Powered By Balloons (nextbigwhat.com)
- Google flies Internet balloons in stratosphere for a “network in the sky” (arstechnica.com)
- Balloons above Canterbury to beam down wireless internet (radionz.co.nz)
- Google X to launch Internet balloon project ‘Loon’ (theinformativereport.com)