It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s the Loon!

Google’s audacious project to provide Internet via aircraft-sized balloons could mean an end to last-mile connectivity issues worldwide

December 20, 2015 12:48 am | Updated March 24, 2016 10:56 am IST

Among Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s key announcements this week while on a visit to India was to get India on board “Loon”. The company wants to reach out to the ‘two in three Indians’ who don’t have access to the Internet. Here’s what we know about this project of Google X, the mysterious subsidiary of Alphabet that’s into far-fetched, but financially promising, tech such as Google Glass and driverless cars.

What is Google Loon?

Even by Google’s standards, it’s audacious enough for one of the engineers involved to term it a “mad, mad idea that might actually work”. That apart, it refers to a network of about a thousand balloons which will surf the stratosphere and stand in for telecom towers to beam Internet to underserved regions.

Balloons? The Internet?

From descriptions available, the balloons will inflate to the size of a small aircraft. They come attached with antennae, solar panels and a host of electronics that will allow their movement to be controlled on the ground by Google. The balloons fly 20 kilometres above the ground in the stratosphere. Wind speeds vary in each of the layers here. The tough part is in getting the balloons to land on appropriate wind currents that will take them to pre-programmed destinations. To do so, Google will crunch the humongous weather data freely available using its vast computational resources. For now, it does seem that the plan works. One of them circumnavigated the globe and another did a 12,000-mile journey and landed within 500 metres of where it was supposed to. Not bad for a project that’s only a little over two years old.

What parts of the world have seen the Loons?

California and Brazil have seen some initial experiments but the bulk of the most ambitious exercises is in New Zealand, with its vast, barren spaces and relatively-freer airspace. However, the stated aim of the initiative is to be able to move balloons into India, Africa and hopefully all of the five billion people without the Internet.

The hiccups?

Anything that can potentially travel the world runs into the problem of borders. India’s IT Ministry has said that the frequency at which the balloons will provide 4G Internet interferes with the country’s communication networks. Moreover, Google must, at the end of the day, partner with earth-bound telecom service providers whose jurisdictions can be of a disputatious nature. Facebook, too, in aiming to provide Internet through drones, is also angling to be an Internet provider through the airspace. So, in the context of debates over Net neutrality, several questions are bound to emerge over whether there are any caveats to accessing the Internet through these modes.

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