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Intelligent Machines

EmTech: Google’s Internet “Loon” Balloons Will Ring the Globe within a Year

Google X research lab boss Astro Teller says experimental wireless balloons will test delivering Internet access throughout the Southern Hemisphere by next year.

A practical way to spread Internet access to regions with poor communications infrastructure could change the lives of billions of people.

Within a year, Google is aiming to have a continuous ring of high-altitude balloons in the Southern Hemisphere capable of providing wireless Internet service to cell phones on the ground.

Astro Teller
Astro Teller

That’s according to Astro Teller, head of the Google X lab, the company established with the purpose of working on “moon shot” research projects. He spoke at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference in Cambridge today.

Teller said that the balloon project, known as Project Loon, was on track to meet the goal of demonstrating a practical way to get wireless Internet access to billions of people who don’t have it today, mostly in poor parts of the globe.

For that to work, Google would need a large fleet of balloons constantly circling the globe so that people on the ground could always get a signal. Teller said Google should soon have enough balloons aloft to  prove that the idea is workable. “In the next year or so we should have a semi-permanent ring of balloons somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere,” he said.

Google first revealed the existence of Project Loon in June 2013 and has tested Loon Balloons, as they are known, in the U.S., New Zealand, and Brazil. The balloons fly at 60,000 feet and can stay aloft for as long as 100 days, their electronics powered by solar panels. Google’s balloons have now traveled more than two million kilometers, said Teller.

A Project Loon prototype sails skyward.

The balloons provide wireless Internet using the same LTE protocol used by cellular devices. Google has said that the balloons can serve data at rates of 22 megabits per second to fixed antennas, and five megabits per second to mobile handsets.

Google’s trials in New Zealand and Brazil are being conducted in partnership with local cellular providers. Google isn’t currently in the Internet service provider business—despite dabbling in wired services in the U.S. (see “Google Fiber’s Ripple Effect”)—but Teller said Project Loon would generate profits if it worked out. “We haven’t taken a dime of revenue, but if we can figure out a way to take the Internet to five billion people, that’s very valuable,” he said.

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