Today in Christchurch, Google announced Project Loon—an experimental technology for balloon-powered Internet access. It is very early days, but the company thinks a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, might be a way to provide affordable Internet access to rural, remote, and underserved areas down on Earth, or help after disasters when existing communication infrastructure is affected. The balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes fly, can beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster.
A pilot test began this week in New Zealand, as we launched a few dozen balloons from the Tekapo area of the South Island. A group of about 50 pilot testers in Christchurch and parts of Canterbury now have special Internet antennas that can connect to the balloon-powered Internet when the balloons are in a 20km radius. Charles Nimmo of Leeston became the first person in the world to connect to balloon-powered Internet.
Google expects to learn and improve on the technology and balloon design thanks to 30 new balloons launched this week.
Over time, the company would like to set up pilots in countries at the same latitude as New Zealand. They also want to find partners for the next phase of this project.
One of the ideas for the project is to be able to use your cell phone with your existing service provider to connect to the balloons and get connectivity where there is none today.