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Maybe balloons are the answer…

In my first blog posting of 2014 I talked about Google’s autonomous and futuristic car project which could mean we’re riding shotgun with a computer driving us to work, whilst Google Now is keeping us updated on our favourite sports teams and the weather, and the length of our commute is displayed in our Google Glass. Awesome. What next? Well, wireless internet provided by balloons floating in the stratosphere apparently.

When I initially saw the press release I thought this was just a crazy concept, but no, they ran a pilot in New Zealand and it actually worked, in the project called ‘Loon’!

Google have estimated that there are over five billion people around the world without access to the internet. Some simply can’t afford it and live in poverty, but many also live in such remote locations that there’s no copper or fibre to get them online. Google’s theory is that the best and most cost effective way to provide broadband to un-connected areas of the world is by floating hundreds of thousands of balloons high up above the earth that can beam Wi-Fi down to the ground. Apparently, the materials are relatively inexpensive. We’re not talking about the kind of helium balloons you’d see at a child’s party though; the Google balloons are 15 metres wide and made from a material strong enough to withstand extremely high altitude pressures.

We’ve all seen what happens when we let go of a helium balloon. Well what I’m interested in is how they get the tech to work and give us the Wi-Fi on the ground. The clever science behind this is that the balloons actually beam a signal back down to aerials that have to be installed on higher ground which ultimately link back to a broadband connection somewhere, which could literally be anywhere. Each balloon is capable of providing connectivity within a 12 mile radius which is pretty impressive. Google, however, haven’t yet been very forthcoming regarding data on bandwidth or throughput. The balloons are also surprisingly able to control their own altitude by inflating and deflating, as well as being able to be steered from the ground if they’re moved out of position by the unpredictable elements. This could mean huge developments in technology for third world countries and access to communication, learning and a vast array of opportunities for many less privileged people.

Although an innovative and potentially brilliant idea, to roll this out on a global scale would require a large number of governments to agree to thousands of huge balloons in their airspace. Many critics have already flamed the idea, saying it will only last for a short period before they will lose power, fall out of the sky or go off course completely.

Google have now gone quiet after the initial press coverage when they successfully put farmers online in remote areas of New Zealand last year. We will wait eagerly for more updates on how this exciting project might be evolving. Watch this space.

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