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Can Google’s Fleet of High-Altitude Balloons Bring the Internet to the World’s Unconnected?

Two out of three people on Earth can't access the Internet. Google hopes its whimsically named "Project Loon" can change that.

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Two out of three people on Earth can’t access the Internet. Google hopes its whimsically named “Project Loon” can change that.

Since 2013, the tech giant has been testing a system that could dramatically increase the levels of Internet connectivity in remote, underdeveloped, and disaster-stricken areas. The idea is simple (though no one is sure if it will work): expand access by beaming wireless connections down from a network of high-altitude balloons. This week, Google signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Sri Lanka that could result in the island country serving as the first nationwide proof of concept for balloon-powered Internet.

Sri Lanka is an ideal candidate for the technology for both demographic and geographic reasons. Most residents of the island have cell phones, but only one in four has access to the Internet, according to the World Bank. A decades-long civil war ended in 2009, leaving swaths of the country drastically underdeveloped. And much of the island’s interior is sparsely settled and covered in steep hills that render traditional ground-based networks expensive and ineffective. “What these balloons can do is really leapfrog the area’s infrastructure, so you don’t need to build another few hundred towers,” Saman Amarasinghe, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is from Sri Lanka, told Foreign Policy.

Google confirmed that it signed the memorandum, but wouldn’t go into further detail because the initiative has yet to get fully underway. Sri Lankan officials were less reticent: “The entire Sri Lankan island — every village from Dondra [in the south] to Point Pedro [in the north] — will be covered with affordable high-speed Internet using Google Loon’s balloon technology,” Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera told local media.

He may have gotten ahead of himself.

“They don’t know yet if it’s going to be successful or not,” Joseph Maydell — the founder of High Altitude Science, a company that launches payloads to the edge of space using high-altitude balloons, and a former International Space Station flight controller — told FP.

If balloon-based Internet turned out to be possible, how would it work in practice?

Much in the same way satellite networks do, Maydell said. The balloons, of course, would not reach orbit, but they would drift more than 12 miles overhead, far above commercial flights, in the stratosphere.

“To steer one balloon left or right, you actually go up or down, and that’s because in the stratosphere, the wind goes slightly different direction[s] at a different altitude,” Mike Cassidy, who leads Project Loon, said in a video released by Google. “To provide continuous Internet service, you are talking a complex choreography, where thousands of balloons are being steered and programmed, all in an automated fashion, so another balloon is coming just at the right time to take the place of the one that left.”

But software, overseen by human operators, would constitute only a fraction of the challenge. “They have to be lightweight, they have to be strong, and they have to be able to withstand a huge amount of UV radiation,” Maydell said. “They have to fly for over 100 days; the challenge will be to do it consistently. They are working on a process to find the right materials. One of the biggest challenges is launching a balloon with zero leaks. The challenge is being able to do it repeatedly and dependably.”

Assuming Google finds balloon-envelope material that lives up to these standards, the Loon balloons would stay in the air for months on end, going in and out of service according to schedule. While aloft, each balloon would provide connectivity to a roughly 25-mile diameter area on the ground, including deep valleys, using standard Long-Term Evolution (LTE) wireless communication technology, in partnership with local service providers, essentially acting as floating cell-phone towers — the apexes of cones of connectivity. Wireless traffic would bounce from devices on the ground to balloons overhead, which would relay the traffic on to the global Net.

“Kind of like a satellite, you have this communication relay device, but you also have the ability to refurbish them, repair them if something goes wrong. You can take it down and replace it with another one; you have so much more flexibility with the hardware,” Maydell said. “You don’t have to overdesign it like a satellite that would need to work for the next 20 years. It gives you the benefits without the risks.” If the plan works, that is.

Eventually, Project Loon hopes to put in place a band of balloons around latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, creating a continuous circle of coverage.

For a company like Google, so ubiquitous that most Internet users interact with its services, expansion means growing the Internet itself. Facebook is in the same boat, and its Connectivity Lab is also experimenting with ways to increase access in the developing world. The company revealed its first solar-powered Internet drone on Thursday, which was built to stay aloft for 90-day intervals, working quite like Google’s balloons. In the realm of spreading the Internet, a race is on.

“What Google is doing is they’re trying to see if they can make it work,” Dwayne Orr, site manager of NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, in Palestine, Texas, told FP. “If they can’t, I’m sure somebody else will make it happen.”

Photo via Google

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. He worked previously in Indonesia as a web editor and Princeton in Asia journalism fellow at the Jakarta Globe. He has also lived in Brazil and Turkey. His work has been published in the Boston Globe, the New Republic, USA Today, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He studied history at Wesleyan University. @bsoloway

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