In a program being dubbed Project Loon, Google is testing high-altitude ballons that will circle the globe, creating an airborne network providing internet access to remote and underserved regions of the world.
Thirty solar-powered ballons have already been launched near Christchurch, in the South Island of New Zealand. It is expected that Project Loon balloons will successfully float in winds 20 kilometers above the Earth. This is twice as high as commercial jets fly, so they will not conflict with existing air traffic.
The plan is that the balloons will create a network of internet hot spots that will be capable of delivering internet access over large, new areas, at speeds equivalent to 3G networks. The ballons are using open radio frequency bands, and internet antennae are positioned at ground level with 50 pilot testers in various locations. In time, Google says it wants to set up pilot projects in other countries at the same latitude as New Zealand. The project is looking for partners for this next phase.
Google has stressed that Project Loon “is still a highly experimental technology and we have have a long way to go”. Technical aspects aside, and given ongoing and and increasing privacy concerns relating to U.S. technology companies, the question has already been asked by John Vilasenor over at Forbes: can Google fly its Internet ballons wherever it wants?
It seems the issue Google may face is that of the distances the balloons travel rather than the altitude. Sending up weather ballons is a common occurrence around the world, but apparently they usually stay within the airspace of one country, as they only stay up for a few hours at a time. Google’s balloons will stay up for around 100 days at a time. Certainly, Google already operates in many countries, but will the company be able to gain permission from every country to fly in its airspace and provide internet access to the ground?
It seems that Google’s policy is often to push ahead with technology and projects in the wider world and apologise later if circumstances demand, rather than asking for permission first. It’s going to be interesting to see how this project develops, both technically and politically.