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

Google's Project Loon balloon-powered Internet project is getting under way this month in New Zealand with testing and trials.

Internet Access

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."