Just outside the Googleplex in Mountain View California there’s a small facility that was the birthplace for many of the revolutionary technologies that Google is known for today. It’s called Google [x] and is akin to the giant research and development labs of corporations in ages past where no idea is off limits. It’s spawned some of the most amazing projects that Google has made public including the Driverless Car and Project Glass. These are only a handful of the projects that are currently under development at this lab however with vast majority of them remaining secret until they’re ready for release into the world. One more of their projects has just reached that milestone and it’s called Project Loon.
The idea is incredibly simple: provide Internet access to everyone regardless of their location. How they’re going about that however is the genius part: they’re going to use a system of high altitude balloons and base relay stations with each of them being able to cover a 40KM area. For countries that don’t have the resources to lay the cables required to provide Internet this provides a really easy solution to covering large areas and even makes providing Internet possible to regions that would otherwise be inaccessible.
What’s really amazing however is how they’re going about solving some of the issues you run into when you’re using balloons as your transportation system:
The height they fly at is around the bottom end of the range for your typical weather balloon (they can be found from 18KM all the way up to 38KM) and is about half the height from where Felix Baumgartner made his high altitude jump from last year. I wasn’t aware that different layers of the stratosphere had different wind directions and making use of them to keep the balloons in position is just an awesome piece of engineering. Of course this would all be for naught if the Internet service they delivered wasn’t anything above what’s available now with satellite broadband, but it seems they’ve got that covered too.
The Loon stations use the 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz frequencies for communications with ground receivers and base stations and are capable of delivering speeds comparable to 3G (~2MBps or so). Now if I’m honest the choice to use these public signal spaces seems like a little bit of a gamble as whilst it’s free to use it’s also a signal space that’s already quite congested. I guess this is less of a problem in the places where Loon is primarily aimed at, namely regional and remote areas, but even those places have microwaves and personal wifi networks. It’s not an insurmountable problem of course, and I’m sure the way-smarter-than-me people at Google[x] have already thought of that, it’s just an issue with anything that tries to use that same frequency space.
I might never end up being a user of this particular project but as someone who lived on the end of a 56K line for the majority of his life I can tell you how exciting this is for people living outside broadband enabled areas. According to Google it’s launching this month in New Zealand to a bunch of pilot users so it won’t be long before we see how this technology works in the real world. From there I’m keen to see where they take it next as there’s a lot of developing countries where this technology could make some really big waves.