There are so many developments in technology that, at a certain point, they don’t really get you excited anymore. Or maybe that’s just me. Call it tech fatigue or plain crazy, but it takes more than just a gesture-controlled smartphone and a wearable computer to get me hyped up these days.
And then Google had to go and blow me away again—pun intended.
Google X, the special, not-so-secret division of Google that brought us Google Glass, has taken on another mission—that of bringing the Internet to everyone, not just the popular kids. Imagine that: a world where you can go online and have access to VoIP service (read more) anywhere, even out in the boondocks. How will Google make that happen? By going out of this world. Literally.
Taking it to the skies
Sometimes, you need to think crazy before you start making sense of things. What’s crazier than balloon-powered Internet? I don’t know what their inspiration was—personally, I figure it was the Pixar flick Up—but after watching the videos on their site, I’m starting to think that this loony idea might just be ingenious.
Project Loon—named more for its crazy factor than the fact that it makes use of balloons—hypothesizes that using a network of floating balloons is the faster, cheaper, and easier way to give Internet access to the remaining majority of the world that is as of now still unconnected. These balloons are solar-powered and remote-controlled, measuring about 15 meters in diameter. They float up to 20 meters above the Earth’s surface, twice as high as airplanes do. At that altitude, they sail with the winds of the stratosphere, moving in varying directions. Back in the Loon control center, the software will monitor and steer the balloons to catch the layer of wind that’s going in the direction it needs to go.
These balloons communicate with each other, as well as with special antennas and ground stations that are connected to the local Internet provider, thus creating a “network in the sky”. Each balloon is expected to be up and running for around a hundred days and will theoretically supply Internet access to a 40-kilometer diameter area below.
One fleet at a time
Just this June, Google X began its first pilot test, launching thirty balloons from Christchurch in New Zealand. Fifty people in Christchurch and Canterbury are said to have signed up to be the first testers, although Google X is still open to volunteers for its future test launches. It seems that they are focusing on New Zealand for now, but Google X is looking at the possibility of setting up more projects in other countries at the same latitude, including Argentina, Chile and South Africa.
As someone who lives in a developing country where Internet connection is passable at best and in many areas, close to nonexistent, I am definitely looking forward to the prospect of reliable, universal Internet. It’ll open up so many doors for growth and progress, not only giving people access to information and services that they are as yet unexposed to, but also making it easier to disseminate data and facilitate communications in times of disasters—something that’s especially important for a country made up of more than seven thousand islands. However, there’s the big question of affordability. Even if the service itself is free, people will still have to buy and install the special receivers to utilize the signal. Will the folks at Google be able to offer these at prices that are reasonable enough, given that they are targeting people in less developed areas?
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Project Loon has a long, long way to go. They have to overcome the challenge of manipulating thousands of balloons in the stratosphere in the exact way needed and make sure that the network is sustainable. Still, it’s something to be excited about and to root for.
How do you feel about Project Loon? Will you volunteer to be a test pilot should Google X schedule a launch in your area? Share your thoughts with us in the comment box below!