Google’s balloon-based internet dream: loon or loony?

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I can’t even remember how many times in the past I have chuckled at the idea of a blimp/balloon-based internet. I guess it was because those ideas were promoted by companies that sounded a bit flim-flammy or sometimes, just plain nuts.

Google Internet Balloons, before the launch in New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Trey Ratcliff (under Creative Commons)

Of course, now we might have to take this whole balloon-based broadband thing seriously — Google is putting a lot of money, time and effort behind it. In a blog post, the company announced Project Loon:

Today we’re unveiling our latest moonshot from Google[x]: balloon-powered Internet access. We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides Internet access to the earth below.  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.  The idea may sound a bit crazy—and that’s part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon—but there’s solid science behind it. This is still highly experimental technology and we have a long way to go.

Google has launch its balloon-based Internet connectivity technology as a trial down in the Canterbury area of New Zealand. It kicked off the program by sending 30 balloons up in the air and 50 testers will be connecting to those balloons. They will launch more balloons in countries which have the same latitude as New Zealand.

This isn’t the first time Google has talked about balloon-based broadband. In 2008, there was talk that Google was looking to work with a company called Space Data Corp., and send balloons up in the air and provide connectivity in rural areas. SDC specialized in sending balloons to about 20 miles up in the air to provide connectivity to truckers and oil companies. It recently started experimenting with the idea of blimp-based broadband in Africa.

Google is obsessed with the idea of connecting more and more people to the Internet, especially in the developing world, and there isn’t a single technology that can get it done. So it has been toying with many ways to provide connectivity in areas that are un-connected. While I don’t have any doubts that Google’s mission to connect the world is driven by the profit motive, I still find the idea of pushing for seamless connectivity exciting. Seamless connectivity, as you know, has been a bit of a personal passion for me.

Looking at it from the outside, you can see that Google is putting two of its core strengths — algorithms and cloud computing infrastructure — to work on what has been a difficult problem to solve. Google admits the idea is crazy but highly experimental, which makes it all the more worthwhile to follow the project. I am also looking forward to sinking my teeth into understanding how this works (or not.)

P.S. Check out these awesome behind the scenes photos Trey Ratcliff took of the Google Loon project and shared them on his Google+ page.

This video below shows how Project Loon works.

Featured image courtesy Flickr user Pink_Sherbet_Photography.

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