The search giant has been looking into using wireless radios on high-altitude balloons to provide broadband in underserved parts of the globe since at least 2008. The company was reportedly talking to Space Data Corp. five years ago about its low-orbit wireless systems. (See Google's Balloon Dreams.)
Now Google has launched a pilot program -- and 30 balloons -- to test the technology in New Zealand. "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," writes Mike Cassidy, the Project Loon Lead in its launch blog.
The aim is to get the Internet at 3G speeds -- or faster -- into the hands of the "2 out of every 3 people on earth" that don't have "a fast, affordable Internet connection" now, according to Google.
As far as I can tell, Google hasn't revealed much about the technology. It has said that the balloons' radios run over 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz unlicensed bands, just like Wi-Fi connections, and "3G speeds" might suggest something like 1Mbit/s downlinks or maybe more. I'll try and get more details on what underpins the project soon.
Still, the project appears to favor the relatively simple approach that Google was mulling back in 2008. Balloons that float twice as high up as commercial airliners and use long-range transmitters onboard to connect with users on the ground.
The new wrinkle is that the balloons float free, unlike many high-altitude communications platforms, which tend to be tethered. Google claims that it has found a way to steer the balloons in low-orbit conditions.
"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," Cassidy notes. Still, it is early days yet for Google's balloons, as Cassidy admits. "This is still highly experimental technology and we have a long way to go," he writes.
If it does eventually succeed in providing cheap Internet for many more people, however, this won't a purely altruistic outcome for the search giant. More people connecting to the Internet would eventually translate to more ad-serving revenue for Google, similar to the way it has pegged a stake of the mobile Internet through its Android operating system.
It sounds like we could still be years from this commercial reality taking to the skies, however.
— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile