One of the latest sci-fi-esque projects to come out of Google's skunkworks is one that could replace traditional internet infrastructure with high altitude balloons beaming the net down to earth.
While those who struggled to use Google's free WiFi in Mountain View may be skeptical, more than a few developing nations are taking seriously "Project Loon," a Google X project. Google X is Google's research and development wing which is developing Google Glass, self-driving cars and now, "internet from balloons 20 kilometers up," said Google's Mike Cassidy in a talk at Google headquarters on Friday. The talk was part of the InterPlanetary Network Special Interest Group's Space Technology Innovations Conference.
Yes, there's a group dedicated to bringing the internet to outer space.
"This project, we hope, is good for people who don't have access to start with," Cassidy said, adding that 5 billion people worldwide still don't have internet access and "28 countries have asked for us to come to deliver internet."
That's because it could be much cheaper to float Project Loon's high altitude balloons in the sky than to run fiber internet throughout a country. A special antenna is placed on a buildings to connect to the high altitude network, though Cassidy said his team is exploring ways to do without it. So far it provides 3G service, with single digit megabit-per-second connection speeds.
The first person to get online using Project Loon was a farmer in New Zealand, who used it to check the weather during a a pilot test last June. Among those interested are the governments of Argentina, New Zealand, Chile and "a remote penguin hatchery near the Antarctic circle," Cassidy said. "They were very excited about this."
Project Loon uses high altitude balloons, similar to weather balloons, which float 20 kilometers in the sky -- twice as high as planes fly. The key to making it work is the balloons can be pushed back and forth by raising and lowering them into relatively predictable high-altitude wind currents, while one balloon can be replaced by another when moved by the wind.
"One of our business models is to work with Telcos in various countries," Cassidy said. "They are very excited about this. When you ask them about the costs of cell tower plans, they say $3.6 billion or $7 billion. We say we'll put the towers in the sky and have a revenue sharing agreement with you. Ten out of 10 have said, 'Yes, that sounds great.'"
After the talk there were questions about the impact of having tens of thousands of plastic balloons in the sky. "Aren't they going to be landing in the ocean?" said one attendee. "We basically have the equipment to bring the balloon down when and where we want to, within half a kilometer," Cassidy said.
He said they will be able to recycle the plastic and reuse the electronics of old balloons, which are designed to stay up for 100 days at a time and use a solar panel to keep batteries charged. Even a hole the size of a pinhead is not repairable, Cassidy said.
As for the possibility of hitting an airplane, Cassidy said the system is safer than a balloon on a tether, which has been proposed for such a network in the past. Once in the air at high altitude, "There's no risk of collision between a balloon and commercial airplane until they come down again," Cassidy said. They're on a "first-name basis with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)" and "we know where the planes are and we avoid the problem that way," he said.
When asked if countries such as China and Vietnam are opposed to the project, Cassidy replied, "It's a situation where I wish I could say everything know, but I can't. We're really successful getting overflight permissions everywhere in the world, especially places you would think we wouldn't." Governments such as China's, which censor the internet, "actually want to bring info to people in rural areas."
Project Loon is just one way in which Google aims to bring the internet to the world. Google is an investor O3B, which uses satellites to achieve similar goals. O3B has already launched its first "medium earth orbit" satellites, with plans to cover the ocean and 180 countries within a wide area stretching 45 degrees north of the equator and 45 degrees south. A major cruise line is also reported to be working to use the service on its ships.
"It's actually really important that Google and others see a variety of ways to invest," Cassidy said. "I think actually it's important there are multiple way to do this."