Google + Hydrogen Balloons = Wireless Network?

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2008-02-20 Print this article Print

By putting up contests to see who can beam high-resolution video from the moon back home, Google has proven it's into experimenting with new types of technology.

The perhaps it comes as no surprise that the search pioneer is reportedly interested in a spaced out way to bring wireless service to millions of rural Americans.

Citing people familiar with the matter, the Wall Street Journal said that Google has discussed partnering with or even buying Space Data Corp., which uses balloons to beam wireless waves down to Texas, Oklahoma, most of Louisiana and Arkansas and portions of New Mexico and Gulf Coast waters.

Google declined to comment, but bear with me for the rub. These hydrogen-filled balloons float up 20 miles into the stratosphere with electronics that acts like a cell phone tower proxy to deliver wireless services to the thousands of miles of territory I mentioned above.

Of course, these disposable balloons are good for only a day before they pop. The gear they carry relies on gravity and tiny parachutes to get back to earth.

It gets zanier. To launch these balloons, Space Data pays mechanics and dairy farmers $50 a pop to launch the space-bound balloons. While the balloons are cheap, the electronics in them are worth about $1,500. Space Data pays 20 "hobbyists" armed with GPS devices $100 for each device they find.

The Journal story acutely points out that more than a third of rural Americans don't have Internet connections, partly because it's costly to build cell phone towers in areas with so few customers. Space Data claims a single balloon can cover an area normally requiring 40 cell towers.

Who needs cellular towers to muck up middle America when you can use mini cell towers borne by good ole-fashioned balloons? 

I realize Google is interested in building out a wireless network. I also realize that Google is interested in cheap, energy-efficient means of powering technology.

But doesn't it seem a little odd that a company that sets up data centers the way yuppies erect McMansions is interested in such a low-fi way to power wireless networks in rural regions?  

I'm going to go out on a limb when I say that balloons and parachutes are probably not what Google had in mind when it bid on 700MHz spectrum last month.

It's hard to argue with Space Data's economics, but it's harder still to believe that Google's initial wireless endeavors will be to serve wireless-hungry indigenous fisherman in the Gulf Coast.

What do you think? |

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