For two out of three people around the world, a fast and affordable Internet connection is out of reach. Google is trying to solve this problem with a network of balloons that fly above the Earth twice as high as commercial airplanes.
Google X, the company's research arm, is testing balloon-powered Internet access. Last week, Google launched 30 high-altitude balloons above the Canterbury area of New Zealand as part of a pilot test with 50 users trying to connect to the Internet via the balloons.
Members of the Google X team explain how they create a wireless network using high altitude balloons that fly in the stratosphere, about 12.4 miles above Earth.
"There are many terrestrial challenges to Internet connectivity -- jungles, archipelagos, mountains," wrote Mike Cassidy, Google's project lead for the balloon effort, in a blog post. "There are also major cost challenges. Right now, for example, in most of the countries in the southern hemisphere, the cost of an Internet connection is more than a month's income. Solving these problems isn't simply a question of time: It requires looking at the problem of access from new angles."
Google's vision is to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on stratospheric winds about 12.4 miles high, that provide Internet access to remote and underserved areas. The balloons communicate with specially designed antennas on the ground, which in turn, connect to ground stations that connect to the local Internet service provider, the company said.
"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," Cassidy wrote. "As a result, we hope balloons could become an option for connecting rural, remote, and underserved areas, and for helping with communications after natural disasters."
He added that people at Google X have dubbed the effort Project Loon, simply because the idea sounds a bit crazy. However, he said there's "solid science" behind it.
Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said he's intrigued with the idea.
"It's a good thing we've got Google to do crazy things," he added. "Internet access is really important, and will be more important going forward. And many things that eventually were significant started out as crazy prototypes. So I'm all for it."
One issue that Google has had to deal with is how to keep the balloons floating roughly in the same area to maintain an Internet connection on Earth. Cassidy said the team members believe they've figured it out.
"All we had to do was figure out how to control their path through the sky," he noted. "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. That solution then led us to a new problem: 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. We're solving this with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power."
Google wants to expand the pilot test and try the balloon effort in other countries going forward. Project leaders also hope to connect with others who have been working to solve Internet connectivity issues to trade ideas and possibly work together.
"This is still highly experimental technology and we have a long way to go," Cassidy wrote. "We'd love your support as we keep trying and keep flying!"
This article, Google tests Internet connectivity via balloons in the stratosphere, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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