How Google X is bringing Internet to Indonesia's 17,000 islands

An audacious plan from Google X engineers will soar over wired technology to bring airborne Wi-Fi to the Southern Hemisphere.

Yudhi Mahatma/Antara Foto/Reuters
Google co-founder Sergey Brin (r.) walks in front of a giant 'Project Loon' balloon at the Google office in Mountain View, Calif., Oct. 28. Alphabet Inc, the new holding company for Google, has teamed up with three Indonesian telecommunications companies to expand Internet access in that country using solar-powered balloons.

Google is literally soaring.

"Project Loon," will bring Internet to four million unconnected people in Indonesia’s 17,000 islands by next year, the company announced Wednesday.

Google plans to launch powered balloons able to transmit a signal to ground stations. Test balloons have already survived 10 million miles of test drives across Indonesia's treacherous jungles and mountains.

"Through balloon-to-balloon communication, Project Loon has the capability to transmit signal from areas that are connected to an Internet groundstation and bounce that signal across a constellation of balloons and back down to even the most remote islands," the Google X team posted on G+.

"In flight testing, the Loon team has already been able to wirelessly transfer data between individual balloons floating over 100 km [60 miles] apart in the stratosphere, enabling local network operators to extend their Internet service into areas that are too difficult to reach with current technology."

The Loons flew well in New Zealand, California, and parts of Brazil, but to connect Indonesia’s 250 million people? It's a challenge.

After first using software algorithms to determine where Loon balloons need to fly, the engineers launch balloons 10 miles above the Earth’s surface into the stratosphere.

Google is on course to have a ring of these balloons encircling the Earth at high Southern latitudes.

Internet access is currently impossible in many parts of Indonesia, where an estimated one in three people are on the web. Even where the technology is in place, government censorship can limit access. Earlier this year, Reddit and Vimeo were blocked by certain ISPs in Indonesia for containing "R-rated content."

The Google X team doesn't seemed bothered by the challenges. In fact, they're expanding the balloon plan in other parts of Asia, including Sri Lanka. And last month, Google announced it would bring high-speed public wireless Internet to over 400 train stations across India.

The Project Loon website offers few details, describing its project as "designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters."

This isn't the first audacious plan cooked up by the Google X team, a semi-secretive team that works out of a remote facility in northern California. They have also created self-driving cars, drones, and contact lenses that monitor glucose levels.

Their mission seems to be innovation beyond imagination.

Project Loon comes close to being a literal castle in the clouds. Loon’s balloons are helium-filled "superpressure" balloons developed from a US Air Force model created in the 1950s.  NASA has experimented with a similar model that might one day fly over Mars. 

Project Loon is just one piece of "our longer term goal of providing a continuous ring of connectivity in partnership with mobile network operators around the globe and, hopefully, bringing the power of the Internet to millions of individuals, wherever they are, for the very first time," according to the company's G+ post.

As Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, overseer of Google X, said, "The emotional distance of the world is shrinking, thanks to the communications we enjoy today."

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