Google Brings Web Access to Remote Areas Using High-Altitude Balloons

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-06-17
Internet Access

Google Brings Web Access to Remote Areas Using High-Altitude Balloons

Google is experimenting with a series of high-altitude balloons over New Zealand to build a high-speed Internet network that could be used to bring affordable Internet service to far-flung locations around the world for the first time.

The experiment, called Project Loon, is being touted as a high-tech way to create Internet connections for two-thirds of the people in the world who currently don't have Internet access due to high costs and the difficulty of stringing connections in rural and far-flung parts of the world, Mike Cassidy, project lead, wrote in a June 14 post on The Google Official Blog.

"There are many terrestrial challenges to Internet connectivity—jungles, archipelagos, mountains," wrote Cassidy. "Solving these problems isn't simply a question of time: it requires looking at the problem of access from new angles. So today we're unveiling our latest moonshot from [the secretive Google research lab] Google[x]: balloon-powered Internet access."

The idea, wrote Cassidy, is to use a series of high-altitude balloons that could provide Internet access to even the most remote areas of the planet.

"We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provide Internet access to the Earth below," he wrote. "It's very early days, but we've built a system that uses balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, to beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today's 3G networks or faster. As a result, we hope balloons could become an option for connecting rural, remote and underserved areas, and for helping with communications after natural disasters."

Google is certainly aware of how crazy it all sounds, wrote Cassidy, so that's why it was named Project Loon. Nevertheless, "there's solid science behind it," he wrote.

Essentially, Google describes Project Loon as "balloon-powered Internet for everyone." The balloons will float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather, and can be "steered by rising or descending to an altitude with winds moving in the desired direction," according to Google. "People connect to the balloon network using a special Internet antenna attached to their building. The signal bounces from balloon to balloon, then to the global Internet back on Earth."

The testing is getting under way now with an experimental pilot project in Christchurch and Canterbury in New Zealand, where 50 volunteer testers are working to connect with the balloons high above, wrote Cassidy.

"This is the first time we've launched this many balloons (30 this week, in fact) and tried to connect to this many receivers on the ground, and we're going to learn a lot that will help us improve our technology and balloon design," he wrote.

The project will be expanded as it progresses.

"Over time, we'd like to set up pilots in countries at the same latitude as New Zealand," wrote Cassidy. "We also want to find partners for the next phase of our project—we can't wait to hear feedback and ideas from people who've been working for far longer than we have on this enormous problem of providing Internet access to rural and remote areas. We imagine someday you'll be able to use your cell phone with your existing service provider to connect to the balloons and get connectivity where there is none today."

Google Brings Web Access to Remote Areas Using High-Altitude Balloons

A Google+ page has also been set up to track the progress of the balloon project.

While the balloons are seen as a viable method of spreading Internet access, they do present some challenges, wrote Cassidy.

"Many projects have looked at high-altitude platforms to provide Internet access to fixed areas on the ground, but trying to stay in one place like this requires a system with major cost and complexity," he wrote. "So 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."

To do that, the project is using just wind and solar power, according to Cassidy. "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."

The balloons themselves are made of very thin plastic that's about 3 mils thick, according to Google. The balloon plastic is a superpressure vessel, which means its shape stays constant and doesn't expand like a mylar party balloon as more gas is placed inside. The balloons are 15m in diameter when fully inflated (the length of a small, light aircraft), but they do not inflate until they've reached float altitude in the stratosphere, according to Google.

Wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is presently used to predict potential flight pathways for the balloons.

In March, Google began a related trial project in South Africa to help bring Internet access to more residents in that developing nation using unused parts of the television spectrum called "white spaces." The South Africa project involves a trial with 10 schools in the Cape Town area that were slated to receive wireless broadband over a white space network.

Google began a white space trial in the United States in 2010 after two years of delays following its initial 2008 announcement of the effort.

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