Google’s latest innovation, Project Loon, aims to bring internet to the disadvantaged, but an information technology analyst says it will also facilitate new business opportunities for already connected areas.
The first test of the ambitious project ran on Saturday, with 30 helium-filled balloons floating high above Christchurch in New Zealand. The balloons carried antennae which were linked to ground base stations in the hope the antennae would carry signals from the ground into people’s homes.
Currently, two thirds of the world is without the internet and Google hopes this new technology will one day be able to bring internet access to these areas and to disaster zones – such as those affected by tsunamis, earthquakes or hurricanes.
Fifty people in New Zealand’s Canterbury area were chosen to take part in the trial and users were able to connect to the internet for about 15 minutes.
If successful, the technology is likely to dramatically increase internet usage in the developing world. Project leader Mike Cassidy wrote in a blog post solving problems such as internet connection costs and terrestrial challenges meant tackling internet access from a new angle.
“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.
“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,” he says.
Cassidy says it’s early days, but Google has built a system wherein the balloons would be carried at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes and it would beam internet access to the ground at similar speeds to today’s 3G network.
The balloons have a 15-metre diameter and appear like a translucent jellyfish in the sky.
“We hope balloons could become an option for connecting rural, remote and underserved areas and for helping with communications after natural disasters.
“The idea may sound a bit crazy – and that’s part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon – but there’s solid science behind it,” Cassidy says.
Telsyte analyst Sam Yip told SmartCompany the technology will benefit the developed and developing world.
“For businesses which don’t have an internet connection, 3G is sufficient enough to view videos and phones, connect to people and to start an online business. So even if the technology is rolled out in three or four years, it will still be fast enough for people currently without internet.
“When it comes to businesses in those countries with internet connections, it opens up new opportunities and places to enter, so it’s positive for those countries too,” he says.
Yip says the hardware costs for connecting to this infrastructure could be problematic, but he says they would likely be subsidised.
Yip says the benefits to developed businesses are likely to be a long-term outcome of the technology, but it will quickly increase the market share of Google.
“The quickest way to win share is to expand into areas which don’t have your product and there isn’t any competition.
“There are no other technologies I know of being created to such a mass scale. It is a pretty out there sort of idea to launch a balloon and send it around the world,” he says.
Yip says Google is a mile ahead of other competitors.
“In terms of Google, it has the branding and the scale to develop emerging technologies like this, whereas no other companies have the scale or the money to spend on research and development projects such as this.
“This is really a blue sky opportunity at this stage,” he says.
The balloons path through the sky will be controlled using wind and solar power and the signals travel in an unlicensed spectrum, meaning Google doesn’t have to complete the regulatory processes required of internet providers.
The balloons were developed in Google’s X lab, which was previously responsible for the creation of a driverless car and Google Glass.
Australia will be involved in the next stage of the trial where Google plans to launch 300 balloons.
Associated Press report prior to launching the trial in New Zealand, Google had been testing balloons in California’s central valley and this had resulted in locals reporting UFO sightings.