Project Loon: Google Floats Balloons for Free Public WiFi Internet Access

It's easy to take broadband Internet access for granted when you live in a city or the suburbs. Companies like Charter, Comcast, and other ISPs have done a good job making sure densely populated areas can receive fast Internet service, but once you venture off the beaten path, broadband is a bit more difficult to come by. The situation is even worse on a worldwide scale -- according to Google, 2 out every 3 people on the planet are without fast, affordable Internet options. The solution? Maybe balloons.

Yes, balloons, which would serve as the backbone to an ambitious effort to expand affordable Internet access to rural areas and other destinations with limited options. Google's calling the "crazy" effort Project Loon.

"We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides Internet access to the earth below," Google stated in a blog post. "It’s very early days, but we’ve built a system that uses balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, to beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster."

Indeed, it does sound a "bit crazy," as Google is quick to admit, and that's also part of the reason why it's calling the effort Project Loon. However, Google points out there's "solid science behind it" too. The key to Project Loon is in not trying to make the balloons stay in one place. Doing so would be costly and complex. Instead, Google simply wants to control their path through the sky.

"We’ve now found a way to do that, using just wind and solar power: we can move the balloons up or down to catch the winds we want them to travel in," Google explains. "That solution then led us to a new problem: how to manage a fleet of balloons sailing around the world so that each balloon is in the area you want it right when you need it. We’re solving this with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power."

Project Loon Balloon

Antennas on the ground point up to the sky and "talk" with the balloons. Each balloon is able to communicate with neighboring ones, which then send information back down to ground stations connected to the local ISPs. This essentially creates a network in the sky with speeds similar to today's 3G networks.

Google started a pilot program in New Zealand with 50 testers trying to connect to its balloons. The information Google cultivates will be used to initiate more pilot programs, and eventually it will move on to the next phase of the project, details of which don't exist yet.

So yes, this is a long shot, but as Vince Vaughn notes in The Internship, "Sometimes the long shots pay off the biggest."