This weekend Google announced the existence of Project Loon, a network of high-altitude balloons floating through the stratosphere bringing the Internet to previously unconnected households. Initially the project will trial in New Zealand, with 50 households connected – but Google is planning this for a grand stage. Rich DeVaul, Chief Architect on the project, describes it as the answer to the problem of how to get the Internet to the ‘5 or 6 billion people in the world that don’t have it.’ The ambition of that statement is startling, and it’s a big part of what makes this so exciting – it’s a reminder that Google hasn’t lost its desire to innovate.
There is something almost impossibly magical about this project, a Vernian dream for the digital age. The stratospheric meshing of old and new technology, hot air balloons and smart transmitters, appeals to the inner steam punk in all of us – especially as Project Loon is so obviously beneficial to mankind as a whole (although the legions of people currently wasting time on Reddit, Lolcats or Facebook might disagree). So how and why are Google doing this? The ‘why?’ we attempted to answer in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, written in reaction to the rumours that Google were planning a blimp-based Wi-Fi network in Africa (tl;dr – More internet access = more Google searches, Google could use this network to launch a cheap handset to fill the gap slowly being opened up by Sybmian’s withdrawal). In addition to those practical reasons, it appears that what is driving this project is a genuine desire to do something extraordinary, which is the whole reason that Google[x] and the idea of ‘Moonshots’ even exists. The whole thing is called ‘Project Loon’, which is both ridiculous and glorious – It’s nice to know that Google haven’t lost their sense of fun.
So how is Google doing this? Annoyingly they’re not actually giving much away about the technical details. We had previously speculated that they would be using White Space transmission (exciting in its own right) but the details released on their website suggest that this isn’t the case, and that transmission will be in the familiar 2.4 and 5.8 GHz bands. This comes with a lot of technical challenges, neither of these bands would appear to be ideally suited to long-range transmission and with each balloon supposedly covering a ground area of 40km diameter (so with the Balloon 20km up that implies a transmission range of about 28km) it will be interesting to see how Google deal with the problem of atmospheric interference (chiefly rain). There is also the problem of ground-installation, as each site receiving signal from the balloons will need a dedicated receiver, easy enough for 50 houses in New Zealand but rather more challenging for tens of thousands across Uganda.
Arguably the most interesting logistical challenge of the project is ‘Loon Mission Control’, a centralised control centre, directing the flight of balloons around the world by raising and lower their altitude (this is based on the fact that there are different stratospheric layers with winds that travel consistently in the same direction – the direction just changes between layers). It will be fascinating to see how Google overcomes these challenges, and how they overcome the problem of scaling up from New Zealand to the whole world. In any case, the aim of bringing Internet to the 5 Billion or so people who are currently without it is both philanthropic and one of the most challenging projects Google has ever embarked upon. It’s stuff like this that helped Google become the world’s most interesting company, and whoever actually came up with the idea for Project Loon is Google’s Daedalus, turning to flight to solve a seemingly impossible problem – that of connecting the entire world.