How loony is the Google Loon project?

Google Loon is a project to bring the Internet to forgotten corners of the globe using balloons. Will it fly?

(AP Photo/Jon Shenk)
A Google balloon sails through the air with the Southern Alps mountains in the background, in Tekapo, New Zealand five days ago. Google is testing the balloons which sail in the stratosphere and beam the Internet to Earth.

Google's Project Loon may sound crazy, but it has a lofty mission: To bridge the gap between the Internet haves and have-nots.

By using balloons. Really.

Google figures that for each person that can get online, there are at least two who can't. That's almost 5 billion people without access to the Internet. And many of those who can't get online are in rural areas where installing fiber-optic cables or accessing the Internet via satellites is prohibitively expensive.

That's why Google Loon was in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Saturday doing their first big test of the concept.

Here's how it works. Large weather-type balloons (49 feet in diameter) are floated at an altitude of 12 miles above the Earth, well above where commercial aircraft fly. A series of stations on the ground (about 60 miles apart) bounce signals off some 300 balloons carrying solar-powered radio transmitters, which also communicate between balloons. The high-altitude balloons circle the globe untethered, riding the winds along the 40th parallel.  The balloons could be steered, somewhat, "by tweaking altitude to find wind currents whooshing in the right direction. Google, which is pretty good at computation, could use the voluminous government data available to accurately simulate wind currents in the stratosphere," according to an article in Wired.

Google calculates that each balloon could provide Internet access to an area twice the size of New York City -  about 1,250 square kilometers.

Is that enough to bridge the digital divide? Probably not. As Richard Bennett, a fellow with the nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told the Associated Press, cellphone towers and smartphones are already quickly bridging that divide in developing countries. "I'm really glad that Google is doing this kind of speculative research," he said. "But it remains to be seen how practical any of these things are."

Why the test debut in Christchurch?

This location hints at a less ambitious but more probable use of Project Loon - if it works: To provide Internet access in disaster areas, where an earthquake or storm has knocked out access. In 2011, an earthquake in Christchurch killed 185 people and left thousands without Internet access, some for weeks. "Here in Christchurch, we're well aware of the importance of connectivity in crisis situations, and Project Loon could be of major benefit to aid organizations and disaster-affected governments alike as they help get cities up and running again," said Mayor Bob Parker, according to the New Zealand Herald.

How did the test go? Well, Charles Nimmo, a sheep farmer in the small town of Leeston, New Zealand, reported that thanks to a red Google dish (shaped like a Google Map pin) on his roof, he got Internet access for about 15 minutes before the Google balloon floated out of range Saturday. 

Nimmo, who says he has paid up to $1,000 a month in satellite Internet fees, described the project as "weird. But it's been exciting to be part of something new."

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