A Loon-y Proposition - Your Future Wireless May Be Brought To You By a Hot Air Balloon
Google's Project Loon is using hot air balloons to bring free Wi-Fi to places that would otherwise have no service.
So what's new with Google these days? Well, one project that has actually been going on for a while has some pretty interesting relevance to how we use today's new shiny data services, and brings the objective of "covering the world with Wi-Fi" to the next level.
Google's Project Loon involves releasing a whole bunch of hot air balloons into the stratosphere to serve as wireless satellites, to help bring connectivity to rural and isolated parts of the world.
That's right, Google's people have built these balloons and released them into the wild, serving New Zealand sheep farmers and others who would otherwise have trouble getting coverage from national carriers.
Another Big Google Project?
This is hardly the first time that the dominant technology firm has made waves with a bold and ambitious program involving cutting-edge technologies.
After all, who can forget the mysterious “Google barges” that surfaced a couple of years ago in Bay Area waterways? After rumors went around that Google was planning to use these for either "interactive learning centers" or Google Glass showrooms, new reports show the company actually gave up on building this modern-day Navy because of fire safety issues.
These types of innovative and groundbreaking products generate a lot of buzz, and this one is no different — in what Google calls a "research and development project," the company is essentially providing free wireless to people who wouldn't otherwise have it. But how this shakes out will involve a lot of scrutiny about how these services are provided — on the face of it, it's just a public service, but as people follow every step of this mammoth company, there are going to be a lot of questions about how these types of connectivity contrast with the everyday Wi-Fi that we get from private ISPs and municipal services. (See more on the ongoing question of Google's intentions and identity at our “Google: Good, Evil or Both?” piece.)
A Common Standard
A lot of people will be wondering how Project Loon works — internal Google resources show how the company propels these roving balloons up into the stratosphere, where they move with the wind and provide connectivity through the LTE protocol.
So what is LTE and is it compatible with our devices? LTE, or long-term evolution, is a pretty common wireless communication standard. It's already used in 4G wireless networks, and provides low data transfer latencies as well as pretty good upload and download rates.
The bottom line is that the standard used by Google's balloons is the same as what's used by cell towers, and what's in modern devices, so it's completely compatible with today's grid.
Interested people can find more details about the past couple of years of Project Loon from internal Google pages showing test footage, as well as going over the processes by which Google mass manufactured these balloons and created a sophisticated "mission control" room that helps Google workers track balloon trajectories (and figure out how well they are serving their intended audiences.)
Google also encountered a bit of a learning curve — where the first balloons only stayed airborne for a few hours, eventually Google figured out how to keep the balloons aloft for 3 to 4 days — now, the goal is that balloons will stay afloat for 100 days before being replaced with others in a carefully engineered process to really bring wireless where it has never gone before.
Google engineer Mike Cassidy reveals more details in a video where he talks about the program's success.
Calling the project a “complex choreography,” Cassidy explains how the company is working with telecom providers in other countries to pinpoint areas that don't have coverage, and extend Loon’s services to them.
“The technology is working.” Cassidy says. “We’re getting closer to the point where we can bring the Internet to people around the world.”
Wireless for All?
Indeed, Project Loon is advancing our societies one more step towards a cable-free and unfettered access to a service that we use now more than ever. This article from GigaOM goes over just how ubiquitous Wi-Fi has become for users, and how today, we’re finally starting to see some cracks in the ISP delivery system that forced us to log on to a localized wireless network every time we needed an Internet connection.
Project Loon is one more alternative that will eventually break the pattern of Wi-Fi isolation, where phone companies and telecom providers battled municipalities across America to place restrictive provisions on free wireless spots and openly accessible signals. In the mobile device world, they've kept this restricted system in place by offering data services as part of smartphone plans, and delivering the power of the entire 4G LTE grid based on monthly subscriptions. But you can't keep free Internet down forever, and when it gets to the point where people are offering free connectivity, the fee-for-service providers won't be able to hold that dam in place.
So while Google Loon seems exotic now, it will soon be part of some more elaborate network that replaces a system of annoying gatekeepers with a freer and more egalitarian method of wireless distribution.
Look for more as Google continues to ramp up this major initiative under its banner as a top innovator and IT service provider to consumers around the world.