Google announced an ambitious plan this week to bring internet to the more than 4.8 billion people in the world who don’t have access to it — or about two out of every three people.
The formerly top-secret “Project Loon” sounds a bit like science fiction — the California-based company envisions an expansive network of thousands of jellyfish-looking, polyethylene-film balloons to one day circle the globe, beaming internet down to remote parts of the world not yet connected. The balloons are 49 feet wide, though invisible from land without a telescope. Traditional efforts to connect undeveloped parts of the world have been unsuccessful due to the prohibitive costs of installation, regulatory hurdles, and daunting geographic challenges such as jungles, swamps, archipelagos, and mountains.
“It’s a huge moonshot, a really big goal to go after,” says project leader Mike Cassidy. “The power of the Internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time.”
Project Loon was developed in the covert Google X lab, the birthplace of futuristic technologies such as Google Glass and Google Car. After eighteen months of planning and development, including early testing in California’s Central Valley that prompted multiple UFO reports, the company has officially released a few dozen balloons over New Zealand. They have partnered with about 50 individuals for the time being, who have signed on as testers.
They expect to have 300 balloons up later this year, circling the 40th parallel over New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Argentina. A full time table for the project has not been announced.
“It’s been weird,” says Charles Nimmo, a New Zealand farmer who is among the 50 who have agreed to start receiving their Internet from a balloon 12 miles overhead. “But it’s exciting to be part of something new.”
Nimmo received a connection for approximately 15 minutes, before his balloon floated out of range, during which time he checked the weather. Google says each one can serve an area of approximately 780 square miles, or approximately twice the size of New York City. The system works through a network of ground base stations that beam a signal from the local Internet provider up to nearby balloons, which then bounce the signal from balloon to balloon, and back down to customers on the ground. Because the balloons float in the stratosphere, at twice the altitude of most planes and well below satellites, Google will require federal air clearance only on sending them up and taking them down.
“One of the most important balloon science breakthroughs of the project was around how to control the altitude of the balloon, which allows us to control where it will fly and to adjust speed,” the company said. Solar panels attached to each balloon will power the circuitry on board; controllers on the ground, spread about 60 miles apart, will be able to monitor the direction and altitude of each balloon.
It’s an ambitious project, which if successful, could bring Google billions in new ad revenue from more people using the internet. The company hasn’t yet announced a price for connection, and for now, says it’s much more interested in the humanitarian advantages. “In most of the countries in the southern hemisphere,” Google said in a blog post, “the cost of an Internet connection is more than a month’s income.” They also say that increased connection could mean life or death after natural disasters, which can disrupt service in remote areas for long periods of time. They chose Christchurch, New Zealand, in part because of its remoteness. After a 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people, residents and disaster relief teams in the area were cut off from the Internet for weeks.
Imogen Wall, the at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warns that a project like that needs to be reliable by the time it launches in full. “The potential of a system that can restore connectivity within hours of a crisis hitting is enormously exciting,” he says. Though he cautions that, “if the service fails in a criss, then lives are lost.”