Google to encircle the globe with internet balloons next year

google loon balloon
Screen capture Project Loon / YouTube

As we've written about before, Google's Project Loon aims to bring internet to the parts of the world where people have little or no access. The superpressure balloons float about 12 miles above the earth and beam an internet connection to antennas on the ground. They have already been tested in New Zealand and other spots, but next year will be the real test for Google's high-flying technology.

Last week the tech giant announced that they have partnered with three Indonesian mobile networks to start a pilot program in the country and they also have plans to create a continuous ring around the earth with the solar-powered balloons, giving data service to anyone living below that path.

Each balloon is outfitted with two radio transceivers, a flight computer and GPS location tracker, an altitude control system and solar panels. They are capable of providing data speeds of 10 megabits/sec, which is just shy of what you experience with a 4G connection, a big improvement from the 3G speeds they originally provided. Other upgrades have taken place too.

"In the early days, the balloons would last five or seven or 10 days. Now we have had balloons that have lasted as long as 187 days," Mike Cassidy, vice-president of Project Loon, told the BBC.

"We've also improved the launch process. It used to take 14 people an hour or two to launch a balloon, now with an automated crane we can launch a balloon every 15 minutes with two or three people."

The company will have to launch 300 balloons to make a ring around the Southern Hemisphere. Google says that the ring will allow a continuous internet coverage for the areas below because as one balloon moves with the wind out of range, another moves into place behind it. It will be a major test for how the technology will fare being deployed on a larger scale.

In Indonesia, about 100 million people out of a population of 255 million don't have internet access. The balloons will provide a cheaper solution than installing fiber optic cables or mobile phone towers through the jungles and mountains of the nation's 17,000 islands. This will be a testing ground for whether these balloon can reliably provide data access to areas where it's needed.

If these trials go well, Google plans to start offering the service to beta commercial customers. If not, they have a back-up plan, another high-flying internet project called Titan that uses solar-powered drones instead of balloons.

Google to encircle the globe with internet balloons next year
The ring of giant Project Loon balloons will bring data service to people living below.

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