Google contends Project Loon, balloon-powered broadband, is crazy enough to work

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), rumored for at least five years to be eyeballing ways to deliver low-cost Internet access via balloons, confirmed in a blog post that it has launched Project Loon to bring airborne broadband service to rural and remote areas.

The company contends it is feasible to deploy a ring of radio-equipped balloons to fly around the globe on stratospheric winds 12 miles above the earth and deliver Internet access at 3G or better speeds. Google envisions using the balloons to provide broadband not just in underserved areas but also as a communications option following natural disasters. Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area of about 25 miles.

"The idea may sound a bit crazy--and that's part of the reason we're calling it Project Loon--but there's solid science behind it," wrote Mike Cassidy, project lead, on the company blog.

Last week, Google launched 30 balloons and initiated a pilot program in the Canterbury area of New Zealand with 50 testers. Cassidy said that Google hopes to set up pilots in countries at the same latitude as New Zealand and is seeking partners for the project's next phase.

In a video, Google said its solar-powered balloons communicate with each other, specialized Internet antennas on the ground (e.g., at a residence) and a local ground station, which connects to an Internet service provider (ISP). The radios and antennas are designed to receive signals from Project Loon only, filtering out other signals. Project Loon currently uses unlicensed 2.4 and 5.8 GHz ISM bands.

The balloons--which inflate to about 15 meters when fully inflated--are not stationary. Google said will apply "complex algorithms and lots of computing power" to the task of managing groups of balloons and their float paths.

Google said it will inform air traffic control of balloon launches and descents. Though it has limited ability to steer the balloons, Google said it can direct them as they descend toward various collection points around the world where they can be gathered, enabling reuse and recycling of their parts.

Some have suggested that Google intends to offer "free Wi-Fi" via the balloons, but Google has not actually discussed the potential business case in detail. It is likely that pricing of such a service may ultimately depend upon arrangements with local ISP partners. "We imagine someday you'll be able to use your cell phone with your existing service provider to connect to the balloons and get connectivity where there is none today," said Cassidy.

Balloons been used over hundreds of years for military communications, and the FCC in May 2012 opened an inquiry into the use of Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture (DACA) to facilitate emergency response after catastrophic events.

Companies that have eyed the use of balloons for high-speed Internet connectivity include Sky Station International, which proposed during the early 1990s to use geostationary dirigible-type platforms to deliver broadband wireless communications. The company was headed by the late Gen. Alexander Haig Jr. and satellite expert Martine (formerly Martin) Rothblatt and its effort eventually fizzled.

Chandler, Ariz.-based Space Data's high-altitude, balloon-borne transceivers have proved more successful: Its SkySite Network provides communications to oil and gas, transportation, utilities and other vertical markets. In 2008, the company was rumored to be working with Google on a balloon-based wireless Internet initiative.

Google did not respond to a FierceBroadbandWireless query regarding whether it is employing technology from Space Data in its latest balloon-Internet effort.

After this story was published, Raven Industries informed FierceBroadbandWireless that it is supplying the high-altitude balloons for Project Loon.

For more:
- see this Google blog entry and fact sheet
- see this Wall Street Journal article
- see this Ars Technica article
- see this Wired article
- see this Raven release

Related articles:
Report: Google looks to fund, develop wireless service for emerging markets
Google wants to experiment with wireless networks using Clearwire spectrum
Report: Google, Dish in talks to launch wireless network

Article updated June 18, 2013, to include information from Raven Industries.

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