CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – Wrinkled and skinny at first, the translucent, jellyfish-shaped balloons that Google released this week from a frozen field in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island hardened into shiny pumpkins as they rose into the blue winter skies above Lake Tekapo, 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 eyeglasses, the flimsy helium-filled inflatables beam the Internet down to earth as they sail past on the wind.
Still experimental, the balloons were the first of thousands that Google’s leaders hope to launch 12 miles into the stratosphere in order to bridge the 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 fiber cable, dramatically increasing Internet usage in places like Africa and Southeast Asia.
It’s a huge moonshot. A really big goal to go after, project leader Mike Cassidy said. 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 whether 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.
Nimmo is among the many rural people, even in developed countries, who can’t get broadband access. After ditching his dial-up four years ago in favor of satellite Internet service, he’s found himself stuck with bills that sometimes exceed $1,000 in a single month.
It’s been weird, Nimmo said of the Google Balloon Internet experience. But it’s been exciting to be part of something new.
Google’s balloons fly free and out of eyesight, scavenging power from card table-sized solar panels that dangle below and gather enough charge in four hours to power them for a day as the balloons sail around the globe on the prevailing winds. Far below, ground stations with Internet capabilities about 60 miles apart bounce signals up to the balloons.
The signals would hop forward, from one balloon to the next, along a backbone of up to five balloons.
Each balloon would provide Internet service for an area twice the size of New York City, about 780 square miles, and terrain is not a challenge. They could stream Internet into Afghanistan’s steep Khyber Pass or Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, a country where the World Bank estimates four of every 100 people are online.
There are plenty of catches, including a requirement that anyone using Google Balloon Internet would need a receiver plugged into their computer in order to receive the signal.
Google is not talking costs at this point, though they’re striving to make both the balloons and receivers as inexpensive as possible, dramatically less than laying cables.
The signals travel in the unlicensed spectrum, which means Google doesn’t have to go through the onerous regulatory processes required for Internet providers using wireless communications networks or satellites.
Google chose the country in part because of its remoteness. Cassidy said in the next phase of the trial they hope to get up to 300 balloons forming a ring on the 40th parallel south from New Zealand through Australia, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina.
In Christchurch last week, the balloons were invisible in the sky except for an occasional glint, but people could see them if they happened to be in the remote countryside where they were launched or through binoculars, if they knew where to look.
Before heading to New Zealand, Google spent a few months secretly launching between two and five flights a week in California’s central valley, prompting what Google’s scientists said were a handful of unusual reports on local media.
We were chasing balloons around from trucks on the ground, DeVaul said, and people were calling in reports about UFOs.