The goal of any big Internet property is, of course, to get as many people using their service as possible. That is a given. What that really means, though, is getting Internet access to everyone, even in places that are rural, remote, and underserved. And that is the real challenge: how do you actually get the entire world onto the Internet?
Google thinks it might have found the way: hot air balloons. No, seriously. Hot air balloons. It's not as crazy as it sounds!
The inative, called "Project Loon," uses solar powered balloons that float 20 kilometers above the earth, in the stratosphere, higher than the altitude at which most planes travel. In the stratosphere, wind is layered and go in particular directions, so Google can actually steer the balloons by going up and down between the different layers.
"Balloons, with all their effortless elegance, present some challenges. Many projects have looked at high-altitude platforms to provide Internet access to fixed areas on the ground, but trying to stay in one place like this requires a system with major cost and complexity," Mike Cassidy, Project Lead, Project Loon, wrote in a blog post Friday. "We’ve now found a way to do that, using just wind and solar power: we can move the balloons up or down to catch the winds we want them to travel in."
There is now another problem that Cassidy pointed out: how to manage a fleet of balloons sailing around the world so that each balloon is in the area you want it right when you need it. Google, he said, is solving this with "some complex algorithms and lots of computing power."
Once the balloons are up in the air, there are special annetenas on the ground that are used to communicate with them. Each antenna talks to a balloon, and then each balloon talks to the other balloons, and then back to a ground station, which is connected to the local Internet provider. This, essentially, creates a network in the sky.
"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," said Cassidy.
Google has already started a pilot program in the Canterbury area of New Zealand with 50 testers, or receivers, on the ground trying to connect to 30 balloons.
And if you are wondering it is called Project Loon, yes, it is because of how crazy this idea sounds!
Here are a couple of videos supplied by Google. The first one explains the idea, while the second explains the technology.