Could AI-guided balloons bring the internet to developing countries?

With a multi-year 'moon shot,' Google's parent company Alphabet is betting that it can.

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Electronic screens post prices of Alphabet stock at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. The head of Alphabet's 'moonshot project' subsidiary X says that the company's Project Loon initiative has gathered some unexpected momentum.

Last year, a record 3.5 billion people used the internet. That sounds impressive, but it’s less than half the world’s total population. An initiative by Google parent Alphabet, entitled Project Loon, aims to bring the rest online using high-altitude, internet-streaming balloons.

And that initiative is progressing faster than expected. The Alphabet employee who leads X, the company’s “moonshot factory,” told reporters on Thursday that “timelines are starting to move up” on the initiative.

In a blog post, Captain of MoonshotsAstro Teller said that the team had “exceeded even their own expectations for how well their smart software algorithms can help their balloons navigate the globe, and in the process they’ve leapt much closer to a day when balloon-powered Internet could become a reality for people in rural and remote regions of the globe.”

The unlikely merger of balloons and internet not only reflects the brainpower of Loon’s team, but also the business incentive to get the offline half of humanity connected.

Since they first flew in 1783, hot-air balloons have been at the mercy of the winds. Instead of steering, balloons must rise or fall to catch a particular current.

As recently as 1999, that process required a human pilot. That year, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones completed the first nonstop around-the-world balloon flight.

“Many modern balloons are equipped with autopilots, allowing their crews to sleep. An autopilot monitors a balloon's altitude, automatically firing the craft's hot-air burners as needed to maintain the constant height,” The New York Times explained at the time. “But that is only for periods when course changes are not needed, and most pilots are awake most of the time.”

Eighteen years later, software algorithms can guide Project Loon’s balloons through the stratosphere’s highly-stratified wind currents, enabling them to hover as needed over a particular area for weeks on end.  

How far this technology could have come without Google’s support may never be known. But the enthusiasm for Project Loon that X's Mr. Teller expresses in his blog post suggests the venture has reached a sweet spot of eye-catching technology and business promise.

While speaking with Bloomberg last year, Teller wrote the word “progress” next to a dollar sign on a white board to make clear that the “moonshot factory’s” work had to eventually yield a profit. Even as Alphabet pushed ahead with Project Loon, it cut back on Google Fiber, a broadband cable-laying venture, as too costly and time-consuming.

For a company that commands 30 percent – a large, but slightly declining share – of total online ad revenue, hooking up more internet users may make Project Loon a money-earning venture. Facebook also sees money to be made in bringing internet to underserved locales, but it’s focusing on drones rather than balloons.

But both firms could face headwinds over the developing countries they aim to serve, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last February. Free Basics, Facebook's competing proposal to offer affordable internet access around the world, has come under criticism in India and Egypt because of questions about the company's intentions.

The service “earned comparisons to the British East India Company and raised questions about whether the service violates net neutrality,” as Max Lewontin wrote for the Monitor.

For the time being, Google has managed to avoid similar opposition by working with local governments and telecom providers.

But not all of the laws governing wireless communications have caught up with the new technology. The Sri Lankan government, for instance, hasn’t received permission from the Geneva-based Telecommunications Union to let Google use the same frequency as the country’s public broadcasters.

But challenges like these don’t seem to have fazed Mr. Teller. “No one could have pretended to know how to build a network of free-flying, high-altitude balloons that could beam Internet to the earth below,” he writes, adding that “the Loon team has persevered and brought the seemingly impossible within reach.”

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