Google Project Loon: It's a bird! It's a plane! It's the Internet!

Google announces plan to provide wide-area Internet service to under-served areas via balloons

Google engineers are planning to test a system aimed at providing accessible Internet service to parts of the world with insufficient communications infrastructure – a collection of high-flying balloons equipped with specialized radios, dubbed Project Loon.

The idea, according to Google, is to offer Internet service to the two-thirds of the world’s population that still doesn’t have it. The balloons float about 20 km above the Earth’s surface – more than high enough to avoid weather systems and the vast majority of air traffic – and each one should provide Internet service at approximately 3G speeds to an area 40 km in diameter.

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A solar collector powers the balloon’s systems during the day, and also charges a battery for nighttime use. The balloons maintain their positions by reading the predictable air currents that occur at their high altitude and slightly adjusting their heights to stay in roughly the same area.

High-flying Internet antennae aren’t an entirely new idea, however. Various types of drones, zeppelins and balloons have all been designed, and in many cases, tried out in the field. The U.S. Air Force announced in January that some types of targeting pod affixed to combat aircraft are being modified to serve as wireless routers, allowing for better information-sharing among troops on the ground.

Farpoint Group principal and Network World contributor Craig Mathias says that Project Loon has several potential upsides.

Project Loon

Credit: Google

“The advantages are lower cost and less round-trip time than a satellite, and, given enough of these in the air at any given moment in any given location, higher capacity via the multiplicative effect associated with wireless meshes,” he says.

Mathias also points out, however, that this type of commercial deployment hasn’t been successful in the past.

“Balloons drift, and airplane pilots need bathroom breaks,” he says. “I don’t see why this effort will be any more commercially successful, however, but it is interesting nonetheless. Keep in mind that Google has a lot of money to spend on pure research, and this project isn’t really all that expensive.”

Email Jon Gold at and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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