Aloft with Project Loon


By Michael Richey

I’m prone to daydreaming, flights of fancy which can strike me at any moment. I believe in the notion that these momentary lapses in attention spur genuine innovation, or at least help us reconsider conundrums. Visualizing the concept behind Project Loon, an effort to provide internet to the multitudes without it, might strike one as a daydream. But that’s if the problem their addressing doesn’t floor you first.
More than two thirds of the world’s population can’t connect to broadband internet, an astounding figure to consider, especially for a digital native who has grown up with the internet and takes it for granted; but growing up with the internet also illuminates its value. The instrumental, positive impact web connectivity can have on people’s lives gives impetus to the minds behind Project Loon.

Dreaming up a solution to the problem of connecting billions to the web might seem daunting, but for a select few individuals, their career pushes them to collaborate and apply themselves to fix such problems. A short saunter from the global headquarters of Google in Mountain View, California lays a building which mysterious rumors circulate. Cool rumors though, the kind of rumors you might find in a sci-fi novel. The building is the home of Google X, an exclusive and secretive innovations lab, a dream labyrinth intimately linked to their very successful parent company just a half mile up Amphitheatre Parkway. At Google X, the 250 employees hail from a cosmopolitan buffet of backgrounds. Any project undertaken in the innovation lab must hit three criteria: (1) the problem being addressed must affect millions (preferably billions) of people, (2) the final product must have some element of sci-fi (driver-less cars, Google Glass, and hover boards to name a few of Google X’s previous projects); and (3) the tools and hardware employed must include existing technology.

Innovation is the main ingredient for any Google X endeavor. Delivering reliable and fast internet using unmanned aircraft, in essence creating an airborne network with weather balloons, encapsulates the idea behind Project Loon. Of course Google has illustrated and explained the complexities of such an operation professionally, but boiled down the basic components remain simple. Standard weather balloons floating at about 25 kilometers (or 12 miles) in the stratosphere (above planes, below satellites) are controlled by operators who steer them by inflation or deflation, catching the constant and stable high-altitude winds, and in this way they travel the globe. With transmitters, or “High Altitude Platforms,” attached to each balloon one can pick up internet from a tower, send that signal to a nearby balloon, which in turn sends the signal to yet another neighbor and so on, eventually sending a signal to a receiver on a house hundreds, if not thousands of miles from the original broadband tower. It creates what is known as a Mesh Network. This has already happened in Christchurch, New Zealand with 50 pilot testers successfully connecting to high speed internet via Project Loon balloons; and this past March one of the balloons circumnavigated the globe in just 22 days.

The reoccurring, count-your-blessings story is one we hear often, being citizens of a country on the wealthy end of the economic spectrum. The internet is ubiquitous for us, flowing through our neighborhoods and cities in wires and on the air, so readily available that a slight disruption in services causes involuntary frowns, the common audible sigh, and other assorted sounds of frustration. I often catch myself cursing the computer or WiFi router, angered by the five minutes wasted trying to reconnect to the web. And here that clichéd story begins, the one where a villager in the middle of a remote area in an underdeveloped country must walk five miles uphill (both ways) to link his smartphone to a broadband signal, just barely connecting. Scarcity is the driving force behind the story; the same tale could involve a walk for water or a meal. The people inhabiting these developing countries suffer from a lack of many resources, information (and now the internet) being just one of them. That is undoubtedly one of the reasons Google is so keen on launching Project Loon, altruistic and well-meaning as it sounds.

Of course reality isn’t so polarized, people around the globe are connecting to the internet at increasing rates (in 2011, there were roughly 8 new internet users every one second), and nearly 80% of people around the world have a chance at connecting via mobile signals (granted the connection is often slow, and spotty). However, two thirds are without a fixed broadband connection, a permanent and reliable connection to the web that doesn’t involve long walks or iffy searches for an elusive signal. An unreliable network is better than none of course, but weak signals inevitably frustrate and fail. Setting up a network which can consistently deliver the internet to users around the world in the most underrepresented countries is the foundation on which people can enter the global community. It’s the foundation on which previously isolated communities can connect, literally and metaphorically.

It’s impossible to understate the impact which the internet has made on the world, the advent of the World Wide Web and the study of its affects is a constantly evolving field. The utilitarian aspect is hard to ignore, our network connections factors into our everyday lives, enabling us access to information and articles ad infinitum – not to mention memes. Technology has made its way into nearly every classroom: Smartboards, smartphones, laptops, tablets, e-readers, and projectors are just a handful of devices I see being used. It has shaped the way we learn for the better. Websites like Khan Academy are teeming with tutorials, from pre-algebra to stats, aimed at explaining math in the most clear and systematic way; it helped me pass the COMPASS test, and it’s strengthened the math skills of countless others. Online communities like Google Sites and WordPress offer places for students to share and work together.

What the teacher wants to see in students regardless of the influence of technology is engagement with the material. When a student is genuinely involved in a lesson, making connections with the material and the world that surrounds them, learning is happening. Using Skype to invite an expert into the classroom, whether it’s a discussion with a historian or listening to a live conversation in Spanish for students learning the language, makes the subject material meaningful and the medium through which students learn it relevant. The reality that most students carry computers in their pockets or backpacks and use online networks to communicate should inform the way we teach them.

Stable connection to the web proves handy for a number of other reasons as well. Helping individuals participate in local politics might be one attribute, another could be making accessible the mountains of information regarding weather patterns and aiding those in rural areas with forecasting; researching and defining health issues, consulting experts, the list goes on. Switching perspectives, to that of the heads running Google, illuminates another driving force for bringing billions more onto the web. Continents that Project Loon is aimed to assist, like Asia and Africa, with huge populations and limited internet infrastructures are vast, untapped markets. Multitudes of people eager to create email accounts, sign on to social networks, buy apps and so forth. The more eyeballs perusing advertisements push revenue. All of these factors make up the lifeblood of Google and similar internet-based companies; it’s the backbone of the company and it’s what allows Google to fund an innovation lab.

The minds at work for Google X aren’t the first to take a crack at building an airborne internet network, the idea itself has history. The mid-to-late nineties were robust times for ambitious schemes to boost global internet connections. In 1994 Bill Gates and Craig McCaw (a fellow billionaire) launched Teledesic, a 9 billion dollar shot at providing global broadband internet through hundreds of low-orbit satellites. Sky Station held promise, the idea revolving around the use of blimps to provide broadband internet to whole cities below its flight path; it most closely resembles the projects of today. A handful of other ventures sprung up, yet eventually they all came crashing back down to earth.

It’s been a slim few years since those pioneers of the stratosphere drafted their plans to connect the world. But within the handful of years that have passed immense leaps in computing and global communication have been made. Does this entitle the people behind Project Loon to success? Smaller companies can’t risk funds to pursue such ideas, and the government is floundering in its own disputes, no politician could openly advocate for an idea like Loon. Quite frankly, the goal of getting billions of people online is grand, to say the least; so perhaps success is a relative term. But the rumors and energy surrounding Google X and their huge project are hard to ignore. Google itself seems to be peaking in annual revenue, the company is swarming with talent, and innovations like Project Loon are relevant avenues for the company to take.


One Comment to “Aloft with Project Loon”

  1. Hey, thanks for the story. I had no idea Google had a project like this! Its a pretty radical but completely awesome idea. My bf is from Christchurch and was thrilled to discovery that Google was testing faster internet in that areas as it really is dead slow. I guess that’s what happens when the entire countries internet runs off one cable running though the pacific…Anyway, just wanted to let you know that you’re right, this idea is radical in a good way : )

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