When Google four years ago announced plans, known as Project Loon, to build an Internet network beaming signals from the stratosphere using balloons, , not a few people were surprised. After all, it was in the nature of Google then to embark on one crazy scheme or the next.
According to them, these balloons would be programmed to circumnavigate the earth, taking high-speed Internet to the poorest regions of the world. Apart from that, the balloon network can be used in areas hit by natural disaster to provide online access to stranded people and help aid workers to ease their work.
The balloons would be in their hundreds; linked to each other and to the people on the ground. When one balloon leaves an area, another balloon immediately takes up that position so that there is constant Internet signal in that area.
Imagine a world where there are hundreds of giant balloons floating in the sky. I could imagine many curious people buying small telescopes just to track these balloons as they hover over their skies.
In the days before Google was reorganized to include the parent company Alphabet, Google encouraged what they call moonshot projects. Moonshots were designed to encourage ideas to flourish.
Any idea, no matter how hare-brained, were explored to their limits. All these moonshots projects were under a unit known as X. Here, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and theorists come together and toss their ideas around.
Failure was an option. It was not discouraged in X Company.
X company’s history is replete with tales of very optimistic projects that couldn’t leave the conceptual stage. One of the most famous of the moonshots that failed was Project Ara, the modular smartphone that had a lot of promise and in which millions had already been invested.
But after the formation of Alphabet, moonshot projects had to be scaled down. They just didn’t fit into the profile of a company designed around making as much money as possible from a few worthwhile investments.
Somehow though, Project Loon is still in development. It seems Google (or Alphabet) is determined to see this one through.
Not plain sailing so far
The engineers working on Project Loon had to overcome several challenges. Naturally, the first challenge was how to steer the balloons to circumnavigate the earth without problems.
Then they had to contend with looping the balloons around oceans and continents. Obviously, the target was to make the loops as small as possible so that the balloons could stay in one location for longer periods of time
Another problem was how to make the balloons stay longer in the skies. The first test in 2014 was able to achieve 50 days floating time. The current news from X is that they have been able to keep a balloon afloat for more than 6 months. That is a significant milestone.
Another significant milestone was slowing down the movement of the balloons considerable. This ensured that fewer numbers of balloons would have to be deployed, as many balloons would not be needed to take the place of a balloon that has moved on to a new location.
This drastically reduced cost and at the same time accelerating development of other aspects of the project.
Getting permission and signing agreements with countries
This is an important part of Project loon. Google would need permission from countries before the balloons would be allowed to fly over the airspace of that country.
And equally important is signing an agreement with telecoms companies to allow their infrastructure be part of the project. These telcos would have to be involved because they act as the middlemen between end-users and the signals coming from Project loon balloons.
To explain simply, the Internet signals from the balloons are beamed down to base stations on the ground (these stations are owned by the telcos); from there, the signals are transmitted to users’ Internet-enabled devices.
Fortunately, countries like Sri Lanka are blazing the trail. They have already signed an agreement with Google to test the balloons in the country. Testing is currently underway.
In Indonesia, 3 network providers are already on board to allow their infrastructure to be used.
Apparently, Canada and Peru are also on board as some of the balloons were seen floating around in these countries late last year. As a matter of fact, it was during a test run in Peru that the project Loon team figured out how to make the balloons stay longer in a particular location.
Project Loon’s optimistic horizon
The stars seem to be aligned in favor of Project Loon at the moment. The fact that Google is still investing in the project and ramping up the number of test runs point heavily in that direction. Most importantly though, nobody has heard rumors about any intention to shoot down the balloons by Alphabet.
However, there is something Google is not telling the world. Would Google ultimately turn Loon into a complete Internet service provider? It would make sense to do that since they have now overcome the teething problem of too many balloons escalating the cost of the project.
On the other hand, Google might not want to antagonize local service providers by starting their own Internet network. Even the governments in those countries might frown on Google becoming a rival to the established players there.
Sure, the competition of having Google as a player in that industry might benefit users in terms of lower cost of data, but it could destabilize the local economy since some network providers might not be able to compete with Google. Cue job losses.
All these concerns are is in the future; though it might never even come to that. The world will just have to wait and see what Google intend to do with the Loon project.
Remember, Project Loon is a moonshot project, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility to shut it down like they have done with other projects. Though shutting down the project would be another blow to the world’s poorest who never seem to be able to catch a break.