Internet From Balloons? Google’s Working On It

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It's called Project Loon, and involves solar-powered helium balloons beaming Internet signals across the sky.

Google says you can pull an Internet signal from 12 miles in the sky, anywhere in the world.

Baloney? No, balloony.

The company is testing the idea of putting a network of helium balloons in the sky to provide Internet service to far-flung regions that largely lack it, including parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, The Associated Press says.

They will fly 12 miles up, where they shouldn’t hit anything. They’ll be too high to encounter airplanes, but too low for satellites.

About 4.8 billion people in the world can’t get online, AP says. Google hopes its balloon scheme, dubbed Project Loon, can provide access to the whole world at a fraction of the cost it would take to lay fiber cable.

A few balloons were tested in a rural part of southern New Zealand, where the lack of broadband access led one man to pay sometimes more than $1,000 a month for satellite Internet access, AP says. In the test, a balloon got him online for 15 minutes before it floated out of range.

For the next test, Google hopes “to get up to 300 balloons forming a ring on the 40th parallel south from New Zealand through Australia, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina,” AP says. Each could provide access to about 780 square miles, and a little overlap should mean a steadier signal.

The balloons are made out of a plastic similar to grocery bags, and carry solar panels that can charge enough in four hours to provide a daylong signal, AP says. Internet stations on the ground, 60 miles apart, beam the signal up to them. Balloons can pass it between each other, and send it back down to users — if they have the necessary receiver plugged into their computers.

There’s no talk of price or availability yet, as this is still the very early days of the project. Google engineers have promised the balloons won’t carry cameras or any surveillance gear, AP says.

Stacy Johnson

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