CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – Google is launching Internet-beaming antennas into the stratosphere aboard giant, jellyfish-shaped balloons with the lofty goal of getting the entire planet online.
Eighteen months in the works, the top-secret project was announced today in New Zealand, where up to 50 volunteer households are already beginning to receive the Internet briefly on their home computers via translucent helium balloons that sail by on the wind 12 miles above Earth.
While the project is still in the very early testing stages, Google hopes eventually to launch thousands of the thin, polyethylene-film inflatables and bring the Internet to some of the more remote parts of the globe, narrowing the digital divide between the 2.2 billion people who are online and the 4.8 billion who aren’t.
If successful, the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of installing fiber-optic cable, dramatically increasing Internet usage in places such as Africa and Southeast Asia.
The so-called Project Loon was developed in the clandestine Google X lab that also came up with a driverless car and Google’s Web-surfing eyeglasses.
Google would not say how much it is investing in the project.
In recent years, military and aeronautical researchers have used tethered balloons to beam Internet signals back to bases on Earth. Google’s balloons would be untethered and out of sight, strung out in a line around the globe. They would ride the winds around the world while Google ground controllers adjusted their altitude to keep them moving along the desired route.
Ground stations about 60 miles apart would bounce Internet signals up to the balloons. The signals would hop backward from one balloon to the next to keep people continuously connected. Solar panels attached to the inflatables would generate electricity to power the Internet circuit boards, radios and antennas.
Each balloon would provide Internet service for an area twice the size of New York City, or about 780 square miles. Because of their high altitude, rugged terrain is not a problem.
“Whole segments of the population would reap enormous benefits, from social inclusion to educational and economic opportunities,” said DePauw University media studies professor Kevin Howley.
Once in place, the light but durable balloons wouldn’t interfere with aviation because they fly twice as high as airplanes and well below satellites, said Richard DeVaul, an MIT-trained scientist who founded Project Loon.
In the U.S., however, Google would have to notify the Federal Aviation Administration when the balloons are on their way up or down. The company is talking with regulators in other countries about meeting their requirements.