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Project Loon takes off: Broadband via balloon

Google on Saturday announced a first step toward a new, experimental method of providing Internet access to rural, remote and underserved areas: balloon-powered Internet access.

Project Loon is experimental technology that uses balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, to beam Internet access to the ground, providing connection speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster.

For every 10 percent gain in Internet penetration, a country’s GDP growth rate increases by 1.4 percent. But for 2 out of every 3 people on earth‚Äîmore than 4.8 billion people‚Äîa fast, affordable Internet connection is still out of reach. There are many terrestrial challenges to Internet connectivity – jungles, archipelagos and mountains. In addition, the cost of an Internet connection is more than a month of income in most of the countries in the southern hemisphere.

Michael Cassidy, Director of Product Management at Google[x] said: ‚”We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides Internet access to the earth below. It’s very early days, but we hope balloons could become an option for connecting rural and remote areas, and for helping with communications after natural disasters. The idea may sound a bit crazy – and that’s part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon – but there’s some solid science behind it.‚”

‚”Many projects looking to provide Internet access via high-altitude platforms have used tethered balloons or dirigibles – but that means you’re fighting against the wind, and this adds major cost and complexity. So our starting point was to free the balloons from any tethering, letting them sail on the winds, while figuring out how to control their path through the sky. We’ve now found a way to do that, using just wind and solar power: we can move them up or down to catch the wind at the speed and direction we want them to travel in. That solution then led us to a new problem: how to manage a fleet of balloons sailing around the world so that each is in the area you want it right when you need it. We’re solving this with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power.‚”

This week Google will be testing its balloons in the Christchurch area of New Zealand. About 50 testers in the pilot programme have attached special Internet antennae to their homes and will attempt to connect to the Internet as Google’s balloons fly overhead. This is the first time Google has launched so many balloons (30 this week) and tried to connect to this many receivers on the ground. The company expects that the results will help it plan and find partners for the next phase of this highly experimental technology project.

Over time, Google plans to expand the group of pilot countries to others at similar latitude as New Zealand, including South Africa, Argentina, Australia, Chile, and Uruguay.

Luke Mckend, Country Director, Google South Africa, said: ‚”If successful, Project Loon could be an affordable, scalable way to help address the digital divide in South Africa, a large country with many towns and communities still isolated from broadband Internet access. Last year’s Internet Matters study by World Wide Worx showed that the Internet contributes up to 2 percent (or R59-billion) of the country’s GDP. We think that more Internet access can boost economic development and job creation, which is highly pertinent in South Africa’s current climate‚”.

Arthur Goldstuck, Managing Director at World Wide Worx, said, ‚”Rural Internet access remains a real challenge in South Africa. The country is connected to six international submarine cables and the national fibre optic backbone is estimated to be around 60,000 kilometres. However, this backbone is concentrated in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Project Loon could potentially become part of a public/private partnership to help solve some of South Africa’s access challenges.‚”

James Mwangi, Global Managing Partner at Dalberg said, ‚”Dalberg’s research in several African countries has shown the positive socioeconomic impact of Internet-enabled services on the public and private sectors, in areas ranging from agriculture and health, to education and SME growth. Internet access, and related experiments to improve access, are critical to this. There are big opportunities for cost savings for businesses in the shift to online enterprise systems. In agriculture, for example, access to online information can create price transparency, improve supply chain management and provides climate and growth data, which ultimately reduces costs and increases farmer incomes. Where policymakers can foster the right conditions for the Internet to make a real difference to their economies, including investment in core Internet infrastructure, there is significant potential for economic growth and clear social gains.‚”

Google acknowledges that it still has a long way to go with its Project Loon ‚”moonshot‚”, but the company is looking forward to seeing if it is possible to make the balloon-powered Internet into a reliable resource in areas that don’t have sufficient Internet access today, and a valuable tool to help people regain communication quickly following natural disasters.

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