Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced at the end of October its plans to launch WiFi-beaming balloons into Indonesia’s stratosphere.
The project, called Project Loon, aims to bring Internet access to the four billion people worldwide who lack WiFi access. Tests of the high-tech balloon began in 2013 in New Zealand, and expanded into California’s central valley and northeast Brazil. This time, Project Loon leader Mike Cassidy says that Indonesia is another ideal test market because it constitutes over 17,000 islands, which are home to approximately 150 million Indonesians who lack Internet access. Cassidy adds that connecting the country’s sprawling land and sea area using traditional cables is a difficult undertaking, but also a perfect opportunity to test out WiFi-beaming balloons as a substitute.
According to the project’s website, these solar and battery powered balloons float about 20 kilometers above ground, where its directions are controlled based on their altitude. Flying above airplanes and weather, these balloons follow wind direction and speed, based on the layer of stratospheric wind into which they rise or fall. This altitude change is under the control of experimenters on the ground. This way, they can gather or disperse their balloons, depending on the land area of WiFi they want the balloons to cover.
Still, as Slate reports, even with Alphabet’s reliance on weather data from the National Weather Service, the winds are still volatile. Project Loon’s development of algorithms that help determine the altitude, and thus direction, of these balloons has been instrumental in the efficacy of the initial tests. The altitude is often changing, and can shift with wind currents at any given time.
The balloon itself is composed of an inflatable balloon, or envelope, from which hangs solar panels on either side of an electronics box; this is responsible for ground control communications and WiFi-beaming, similar to how a brain would be responsible for carrying out basic activities. According to Slate, after numerous trials with envelope material and manufacturing, the project eventually managed to launch balloons that could stay afloat for about 100 days.
Each balloon provides a diameter of 80 kilometers of connection to the wireless network LTE, which people can access using their smartphones or other LTE-friendly devices. In order for people to use the LTE, as Bloomberg reports, Project Loon partners with national telecommunications companies; those in Indonesia include Indosat, Telekomunikasi Selular and XL Axiata. Alphabet tells CNET that the results of its Indonesian tests will help determine the date of a full commercial launch of these balloons.
But why balloons, instead of old-fashioned cell towers? According to Slate, Cassidy argues that the balloons are more affordable and regionally adaptable than cell towers, especially for remote parts of the world. Plus, the network quality will be much better than that of existing WiFi hot-spots in isolated villages, for example. This superior connection, the project’s website claims, will allow students and patients to access remote classrooms and doctors, and farmers and small businesses to expand their production and revenue with more agricultural and economic knowledge in circulation. Google asserts that these, and many other benefits, will be made possible through its WiFi balloon enterprise.
Recently, other big companies have also announced similar plans. CNET reports that Facebook has plans to use drones to beam WiFi connection. SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk plans to launch satellites that will do the same. Virgin Group Co-Founder Sir Richard Branson has ambitions to develop and launch an entire satellite constellation to bring high-speed Internet to the two out of every three people in the world who still have no WiFi.
As the Indonesian test study is underway, we will be able to learn more about the feasibility of including even the most isolated individuals in our vast, ever-growing cyberspace.