Earlier this week, the Canterbury area of New Zealand became the site of the launch of Google's Project Loon, which aims to use balloons to provide truly global internet access. 30 balloons, each 15 meters tall and 12 meters wide when fully inflated, have been launched so far, with around 50 testers trying to connect to them. The giant balloons float at an altitude of 20 kilometers and are the first experimental pilot of the project which Google hopes will eventually lead to "a ring of balloons that fly around the globe on the stratospheric winds and provide internet access to the earth below." Further trials will also be conducted in Australia next year.
The thinking behind Project Loon is that although the internet is generally considered to be a truly global technology, two-thirds of the world's population still does not have access to it. And Google aims to change this. And as New Zealand Prime Minister John Key pointed out, in New Zealand alone, "a place where we think we're pretty forward leaning on the internet," 34,000 homes still do not have access to the internet — so just imagine what the project could do around the rest of the world.
Video credit: The Associated Press
The project, developed in Google's X lab, was so secret that volunteers who signed up for the pilot were not told what was happening. The first person to get access was Charles Nimmo from the small town of Leeston. Technicians came to his house and installed a bright red receiver roughly the size of a basketball to the outside of his house which enabled him to connect to the wireless signal provided by a passing balloon. The Canterbury area was chosen because of favorable stratospheric conditions, but also partly because the city of Christchurch, the largest in the area, was devastated by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Google says that not only is the project "designed to connect people in rural and remote areas [and] help fill coverage gaps," but also to "bring people back online after disasters."
Flying above commercial airlines and the weather, the balloons, which are filled with helium and powered by solar panels, are carried around by the winds and technicians can control them by moving them up or down on different air currents. They provide users within a 40-kilometer area with at least 3G-speed internet, and while they are not stationary and Nimmo only had internet access for about 15 minutes before the balloon moved on, the idea is to have enough balloons in the sky to make the coverage constant.
Video credit: Project Loon
While the project is still in its pilot stage and may seem like a bizarre idea (hence the name Project Loon), it is certainly a fascinating one, and could potentially provide internet access to billions more people without the need for costly cable or satellite infrastructure. Given the recent revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance programs, however, the prospect of a sky full of balloons providing internet access is also sure to raise privacy concerns.