There are places in the United States—yes, here in the good old US of A—that still do not have consistent, reliable access to the Internet. How is this possible? Remote locations with rough terrain lack the towers necessary to support cell service, much less Internet. High speed Internet access is just now conquering cities, but has been remarkably slow to reach the suburbs and what lies beyond. Where profit margins may be low due to low population density, companies are reluctant to invest. Wireless Internet access out in the wilderness, if it exists at all, may disappear entirely on cloudy or stormy days and connection speeds, even at their best, are mightily slow. While this may be lamentable, two-thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have Internet access at all.
How do we solve this problem of access? Google X Lab proposes a wild solution: Project Loon, Balloon Powered Internet for Everyone!
for those near and far. Announced in June, Google’s grandious goal is “a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space,
igned to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps and bring people back online after disasters.” No small feat, but then Google is no small company. And Google’s ideas are not small ideas
How will it work? Specially constructed, extra-strength balloons made of polyethylene plastic and powered by solar panels
will float in the stratosphere, providing connectivity over a “ground area about 40km in diameter at speeds comparable to 3G.” Alas, these incredible balloons are not yet traveling the world’s skies, but if you live in New Zealand, you can sign up to be a Project Loon pilot tester.
Google doesn’t say exactly how the balloons’ trajectories are controlled other than mentioning software algorithms that determine where each balloon needs to go. The plan is to release the balloons in a stream that will surround the earth and continually move in a band, providing consistent service.
In this video, Dan Piponi of Project Loon explains how the spacing of balloons and consistent coverage will be achieved:
Bill Gates has criticized Project Loon as superfluous, especially in light of more pressing world health and poverty issues. However, Internet access and computer literacy are critical for empowering people to rise from poverty. A case can be made that those without Internet access and computer literacy cannot fully participate in society or make use of all intellectual tools at their disposal. The Digital Divide is real, with real consequences. The connection between connectivity and economic mobility has been made time and again: even the Economist called Africa’s lack of cheap, high speed Internet “another kind of poverty.”
Will Google cure malaria with Project Loon? Of course not, nor will Google Panda completely clean up the Internet. But both are big ideas, aimed at solving big problems. Balloon Internet is an idea to watch. Loon may not be the solution to access equality, but it’s a start. Maybe the next iteration–a bird of flight, perhaps?–will change the skyscape of Internet connection forever.
Emily Cantin researched, co-authored and created original artwork for this article.