Google recently revealed its plans to experiment with providing free, wireless Internet to billions of people by next year. Secretly developed within the Google X labs, “Project Loon” aims to send a ring of high-altitude balloons into orbit above the Southern Hemisphere. These balloons will have wireless transmitters that enable them to route Internet connection to cellular phones on the ground below.
At the EmTech Conference hosted by the MIT Technology Review, Astro Teller (head of Google X labs) explained that “if we can figure out a way to take the Internet to five billion people, that’s very valuable.” So far, they’ve had some limited success with early testing. Trials of Project Loon have taken place in New Zealand and Brazil, where local cellular providers have given Google access to their networks. It makes sense that the Southern Hemisphere is Google’s first target.
The Southern Hemisphere is host to densely populated countries that are also some of the least developed in terms of access to technology. Therefore, this location presents an opportunity to provide the greatest benefit to the largest number of people in a single stroke. Southeast Asia, Southern and Central Africa, and South America will all stand to benefit greatly from Project Loon if it should succeed in its projected goals.
To function properly, the high-altitude balloons must be in the air almost constantly to provide a reliable signal for Internet users. They fly at about 60,000 feet, well above commercial airliners, and can maintain their height for nearly 100 days. They’re powered by solar energy, serving data to fixed antennas and mobile devices at varying rates.
Practical problems abound, like the number of balloons required and the reliability of weather patterns for predicting signal strength. Google would need a constant fleet of balloons to be launched in order to maintain a semi-permanent ring and this doesn’t even begin to account for the problems it could cause for air traffic as these balloons rise and fall through the sky. Accurately dubbed as one of the “moon-shot projects” at Google X labs, Project Loon shows great promise. But whether its ambition can overcome its significant challenges remains to be seen.