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article imageCountdown to Launch: Google’s New Loon-y and Balloon-y Project

By Jennifer Cuellar     Aug 16, 2013 in Technology
Somewhere between airplanes and the moon, Google is rolling out the latest stage of their boldest venture yet with Project Loon. Project Loon is comprised of high-altitude balloons that beam Internet access to Earth.
Project Loon’s latest round of testing is taking place over California’s Central Valley. Developers are using these tests to better improve Loon’s power systems and radio configuration. Google has found that Loon’s current radio design negatively interacts with radio interference on the ground in more developed areas.
“This is like trying to talk to a friend at a loud concert,” Google said in a statement on their Project Loon website. “The music interferes with your voice, so your friend might have to ask you to repeat what you said a few times in order to make sure she heard it correctly.” Google needs to fix this problem and a few other tweaks before launch.
“Moonshot” Ambitions of a Fully Connected World
Google’s plan is to bring Internet access to the rest of the two-thirds of the world without it. Project Loon will give people greater access to information and open up communication between rural towns and isolated communities.
Project director Mike Cassidy told The Daily Telegraph that the Internet balloons were a Google "moonshot"--a bold solution to a difficult problem. Cassidy said, "It almost sounds like science fiction when you hear about what our proposal is."
Google has successfully tested about 30 balloons in rural areas of New Zealand since June. The balloons can eventually be used by areas recently hit by natural disasters to help people get back to the Internet and emergency information as quickly as possible. The California tests are to see how the balloons work in more developed areas with more signal interference.
How Project Loon Works
The mechanics of how the balloons work are actually quite simple. The high-altitude balloons are lightweight and designed to stay floating at the stratosphere level for 100 days at a time. Google is able to control the balloons somewhat, but the natural wind currents are expected to keep the balloons relatively in place in the stratosphere and miles above the air traffic of planes and weather balloons.
The Internet signals are bounced from balloon to balloon until they reach ground-based stations and are then sent to specialized antennas that users attach to their homes. Each balloon delivers coverage to about 1250 square kilometres.
A Few Complications of Project Loon
The biggest foe of Project Loon is not the weather; it’s international politics. It’s still widely uncertain if international countries are willing to allow the American company to fly the balloons into their national airspace.
Google can navigate the balloons in a basic capacity but they cannot guarantee that the balloons won’t travel into hostile airspace. In addition to this, Google has a few other challenges to solve before the project can get off the ground:
1.) The balloons run off of solar power, which is limited during winter seasons. Google is still adjusting how the balloons can best store energy when sunlight is scarce.
2.) Since the balloons use radio waves, the balloons utilize the radio spectrum. This spectrum is tightly regulated by most international governments.
3.) There is an international fear that the balloons might be used for surveillance purposes. This fear has been exasperated by recent revelations of PRISM, the US government’s secret surveillance program which includes Google as a forced participant.
Project Loon is not without critics on the home front, as well. Bill Gates recently criticized Project Loon in Bloomberg Businessweek by saying, “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”
Needless to say, Google has a rough flight ahead.
More Than Internet Service, Internet Phones
Project Loon means more than just Internet communication; Internet service also means more phone service. Internet calling (also called Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP) allows users to send and receive calls over an Internet connection instead of a wire connection.
As of 2013, more people have access to mobile phones than they do to computers. Of the 7 billion people in the world, 6 billion have access to mobile phones. In comparison, it’s been estimated that only 25% of the world’s population has access to computers.
With Google’s WiFi balloons and properly placed antennas, people can use their phones to gain Internet access. Not only will their new Internet access become cheap, but their phone service becomes cheap or free as well, creating a truly connected world that fits with Google’s vision.
When Project Loon is Expected to Take Flight
Google is still tweaking the balloons' solar storage and durability as well as the radio systems before any official date is announced. As far as the actual Internet access goes, the New Zealand volunteers have reported back Internet speeds similar to a 3G network, and the California testers are experiencing some Internet service but at a lower than desired quality due to the radio interference.
While Google still hasn’t given a hard date for its official launch, they have stepped up their interviews and media coverage as of late. The public excitement and wonder has been largely enthusiastic so far at each stage of testing.
Up in the air, into the stratosphere, Google is hoping that one day soon their quirky little idea might just have a huge impact connecting the rest of the world.
Jennifer Cuellar is the editor of http://www.voipreview.org/. She is based out of Southern California and writes about the latest news in Internet innovation, VoIP, and IP solutions.
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