Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Google tests web-beaming balloons

A Google balloon sails through the air with the Southern Alps in the background, in Tekapo, New Zealand (AP/Jon Shenk)
A red Google internet receiver fitted to a home in Christchurch, New Zealand (AP)
Solar panels and electronics are prepared for launch in Tekapo, New Zealand (AP/Google)

Wrinkled and skinny at first, the translucent, jellyfish-shaped balloons that Google has released from a frozen field in New Zealand hardened into shiny pumpkins as they rose into the blue winter skies, passing the first big test of a lofty goal to get the entire planet online.

It was the culmination of 18 months' work on what Google calls Project Loon, in recognition of how whacky the idea may sound. Developed in the secretive X lab that came up with a driverless car and web-surfing glasses, the flimsy helium-filled inflatables beam the internet down to earth as they sail past on the wind.

Still in their experimental stage, the balloons released above Lake Tekapo on the South Island were the first of thousands that Google's leaders eventually hope to launch 12 miles into the stratosphere in order to bridge the gaping digital divide between the world's 4.8 billion unwired people and their 2.2 billion plugged-in counterparts.

If successful, the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of laying fibre cable, dramatically increasing internet usage in places such as Africa and Asia. Project leader Mike Cassidy: "It's a huge moonshot. A really big goal to go after. The power of the Internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time."

The first person to get Google Balloon internet access this week was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in the small town of Leeston. He found the experience a little bemusing after he was one of 50 locals who signed up to be a tester for a project that was so secret, no one would explain to them what was happening.

Technicians came to the volunteers' homes and attached to the outside walls bright red receivers the size of basketballs and resembling giant Google map pins.

Nimmo got the internet for about 15 minutes before the balloon transmitting it sailed on past. His first stop on the web was to check out the weather because he wanted to find out if it was an optimal time for "crutching" his sheep, a term he explained to the technicians refers to removing the wool around sheep's rear ends.

He is among the many rural people, even in developed countries, that cannot get broadband access. After ditching his dial-up four years ago in favour of satellite internet service, he's found himself stuck with huge bills. He said of the experiment: "It's been weird. But it's been exciting to be part of something new."

Google's balloons fly free and out of sight, getting power from solar panels that dangle below and gather enough charge in four hours for a day. Far below, ground stations with internet capabilities about 60 miles apart bounce signals up to the balloons. The signals hop forward, from one balloon to the next, along a backbone of up to five balloons.

Each would provide internet service for an area twice the size of New York City. They could stream internet into Afghanistan's steep and winding Khyber Pass or Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, a country where the World Bank estimates four out of every 100 people are online.

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