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Google’s Project Loon brings Internet access to remote areas with giant balloons


Detailed on the Official Google Blog this week, the search company announced an ambitious plan to bring Internet access to a large portion of the world’s population that either can’t afford Web access or is located in a completely remote area without an ISP. Called Project Loon, Google is looking to the sky for the answer rather than a wired network on the ground. Launching a collection of giant balloons with network hardware attached, these balloons float approximately 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in the air being pushed by winds moving within the stratosphere.

After the Project Loon balloons are launched in the air, the network devices attached to the balloons communicate with a specialized Internet antenna that’s attached to someone’s home. Each balloon is also communicating with the other balloons in the air and this network is relaying an Internet connection from a local ISP in the area. The network devices on the Project Loon balloons have been designed to filter out all other signals in the area and specifically focus on delivering Internet connectivity to users on the ground.

Regarding the safety of launching and operating a network of balloons all over the Earth, the team communicates with air traffic control in the area to let them know when a new batch of balloons is being launched. In addition, air traffic control is notified when the Project Loon balloons are on the way down and the team can accurately predict where a balloon will end up landing. The balloons are floating approximately twice as high as the path of a typical commercial flight, so there’s no chance a plane will run into a balloon. In fact, you will need a telescope to spot one of these Project Loon devices in the air. 

Regarding speed, Google is aiming for download and upload speeds that are compatible to a typical 3G cellular network. While someone on the ground won’t be playing games on Xbox Live or video chatting on Skype, they will be able to check email, surf the Web and experience a world of connectivity that simply wasn’t available to them. For instance, people living in rural, remote areas would be able to communicate during natural disasters and gain immediate access to weather data and other current events.

According to an interview in Wired, the polyethylene balloon material is only three-thousands of an inch thick, but can handle the pressure at high altitudes. Weighing in at about 22 pounds, the balloons are carrying computers, GPS hardware and other electronics. There are also solar panels mounted on the platform, specifically designed to keep large batteries charged up all the time to power everything. In addition, the team has included a transponder to help air traffic control keep track of a balloon’s position.

For the time being, the team handling Project Loon is limiting the pilot test of the service to fifty residents of New Zealand. Assuming the project is successful, the team wants to find other countries around the world to partner with in order to launch more balloons and increase the reach of the network.  

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Google planning to launch hundreds of satellites as part of global Internet project
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Google is reportedly gearing up to build a fleet of satellites designed to bring Internet access to people in remote areas and help fill coverage gaps. It's believed the company is preparing to spend between $1 billion and $3 billion to realize its goal.
People familiar with the Web giant's plans told the Wall Street Journal the project will kick off with 180 “small, high-capacity satellites” that will orbit the planet at an altitude lower than current satellites.
The satellite-centered effort follows in the footsteps of Project Loon, a balloon-based initiative launched by Google last June that also has the goal of bringing Internet access to underserved areas around the world.
According to the Journal's report, it's possible the balloons will one day be replaced by drones built by Titan – a company recently acquired by Google – which would complement the service offered by the satellites, with each taking care of Internet access according to the type of area. Other reports in the last month have suggested Google's airborne equipment might also be used to gather imagery for its various mapping tools.
The ambitious satellite project is thought to be under the leadership of Greg Wyler, founder of satellite-communications startup O3b Networks, with engineers from satellite firm Space Systems/Loral LLC brought on board to help make the plan a reality.
While the current proposal is to send 180 satellites skyward, the number could reportedly be doubled at a later stage if the project proves a success.
Internet-providing satellites could ultimately help Google to rake in more ad-based revenue as the company brings more people around the world online. Facebook is also working toward a similar goal, with the social networking giant leading a group of major tech companies in a project to offer Internet access to unconnected locations around the world.

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The NTIA collaborated with the FCC to extract the data, which revealed that 5 to 10 percent of Americans cannot access Internet speeds that would allow incredibly basic Web functions, including downloading images or video chat capability. Only 36 percent of Americans have access to wireless Internet, most using “3G” speeds. The 2010 US Census revealed a shocking amount of disparity when it comes to Internet accessibility, and it's become a government focus to amend the situation. Just last year, the NTIA determined that 40 percent of Americans went without home broadband connections.

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