Google is once again proving that it's much more than a search engine or even a mobile-device company, with Project Loon. The initiative aims to bring "balloon-powered Internet" to isolated areas of the world.
With a tagline "Loon for all," Project Loon deploys balloons that float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather. As Google explains it, they are carried around the earth by winds and they can be steered by rising or descending to an altitude with winds moving in the desired directions.
Practically speaking, people connect to the balloon network using a special Internet antenna attached to their building. The signal bounces from balloon to balloon, then to the global Internet back on earth.
Project Loon Pioneers
"Many of us think of the Internet as a global community. But two-thirds of the world's population does not yet have Internet access," Google said. "Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters."
Project Loon is starting this month with an experimental pilot project in New Zealand. Google said a small group of Project Loon pioneers will test the technology in Christchurch and Canterbury. Specifically, Google will launch 30 balloons for a small group of pilot testers, who will offer feedback that the company will use to refine the technology.
Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, told us Project Loon appears to be a creative and clever way to bring the Internet to people in rural and remote areas of the globe. If Google is able to pull it off, he said, it would be a remarkable feat.
Of course, there are obstacles.
What's In It for Google?
"The company would need the cooperation of governments which control the airspace above their countries," Sterling said. "And given the recent NSA revelations, some countries might be suspicious that this would subject their citizens to U.S. surveillance. However, longer term that's probably not an issue."
Sterling noted that Project Loon is also an example of how Google, more than most of its corporate peers, aspires to solve big problems on a global scale. Of course, the more Internet access, the more people can access Google services.
"One question I would have is how to keep the balloons aloft at the requisite altitudes and avoid aircraft collisions," Sterling said, "but it appears they've solved that problem."