Connecting traditionally problematic areas of the world to the Internet is high on the list of many virtual giants already, and some time ago, in 2013, Google also stepped up to the challenge. Their solution was, in classic Google fashion, ambitious, simple, and light.
The plan, dubbed Project Loon, envisioned a huge fleet of helium balloons suspended 20 kilometers above the surface, creating a grid of high-tech nodes from which Internet traffic could be beamed to and received from the surface.
And now the project is really picking up speed — the company announced this week that they plan to ring the planet with a string of loons to provide perpetual data service for the areas underneath its path. Provided their current tests work out as planned, Google hopes to have it up and running by next year:
“About 300 balloons or so [are required] to make a continuous string around the world,” said Mike Cassidy, vice-president of Project Loon, for the BBC. “As one moves along with the wind out of range, another one comes to take its place. We hope next year to build our first continuous ring around the world, and to have some sort of continuous coverage for certain regions.”
The first ring will hover above the Southern Hemisphere, with each of the 300 proposed balloons connecting an area of 40 kilometers (24.85 miles) in diameter below it.
Google has come a long way since the announcement of the project, making their superpressure balloons much more durable and easier to deploy.
“In the early days, the balloons would last five or seven or 10 days. Now we have had balloons that have lasted as long as 187 days,” said Cassidy. “We’ve also improved the launch process. It used to take 14 people an hour or two to launch a balloon. Now with an automated crane we can launch a balloon every 15 minutes with two or three people.”
They also provide much better ground-level connectivity than the early balloons. Originally, they supported connections similar to 3G cellular networks in performance — they can now deliver data at speeds up to 10 megabits each second, and will give latest-generation 4G mobile networks a run for their money in many parts of the world
If the 300-strong ring of balloons performs as it should and no problems arise, Project Loon will take on its first beta commercial customers, including Sri Lanka that signed up in July and Indonesia, through the efforts of three of the country’s mobile network providers.
As nearly two-thirds of the world still lacks Internet access, there’s no shortage of potential users for the Loons.