Getting High on Helium-Google’s Strategy on Accelerating Internet Growth

A perch high on a tree, hill is the best way to appreciate the weirdness and ‘obscureness’ of something in the works at Google; a testament to the ingenuity of the human being.

On the floor far below, one would imagine a smorgasbord of Google employees who look diminutive as they tend to a pair of balloons, 15 meters across, which are akin to gargantuan white pumpkins. Google has launched hundreds of these balloons into the sky, courtesy of helium that is lighter than air. Already, a couple of dozen float at an altitude of around 20 kilometers, in the rarely visited stratosphere—nearly twice the height of commercial airplanes; each balloon supports a boxy gondola stuffed with solar-powered electronics. What they did is make a radio link to a telecommunications network on the ground and beam down high-speed cellular Internet coverage to smartphones and other devices. It’s known as Project Loon, a name chosen for its semantic link with both flight and insanity, because the idea looks crazy, right?

Google says these balloons can deliver widespread economic and social benefits by bringing Internet access to the 60 percent of the world’s people who don’t have it. Many of those 4.3 billion people live in rural places where telecommunications companies haven’t found it worthwhile to build cell towers or other infrastructure. It’s been three years playing Benjamin Franklin, flying balloons for more than three million kilometers and Google declares Loon balloons are almost ready to go mainstream.

Yes, it does look odd for a large public company to build out infrastructure aimed at helping the world’s poorest people, but there’s a two-pronged approach. In addition to Google’s professed desires to assist the world, the economics of ad-¬supported Web businesses give the company other reasons to think big, get high, if you will. Google did have the supposition that it’s hard to find new clients in Internet markets such as the United States. Having billions more people online would provide a valuable new supply of retinas and personal data for ad targeting. That’s one reason Project Loon will have competition: in 2014 Facebook bought a company that makes solar-powered drones so it can start its own airborne Internet project. So the logic is not that loony, is it?

Google’s global-scale social-engineering project is much further along. During tests with major cellular carriers, the balloons have offered high-speed connections to folk in isolated parts of Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. Mike Cassidy, Project Loon’s leader, says the technology is now efficiently cheap and reliable for Google to start planning how to make it manifest. By year’s end, Cassidy wants to have just enough balloons in the air to test nearly continuous service in several parts of the Southern Hemisphere. Proceeding, Commercial deployment would follow: Google anticipates cellular providers to rent access to the balloons to expand their networks. This way the number of people in the world who still lack Internet access should start to diminish, quite fast.

That’s what was written on the boxes carried by the balloons that the secretive Google X lab (is it me does this remind you of the Manhattan Project?) began to launch over California’s Central Valley in 2012, along with a phone number and the promise of a reward for safe return, neat. Within the boxes was a modified office Wi-Fi router. The balloons were made by two seamstresses hired from the fashion industry, utilizing supplies bought at hardware stores. Talk about simple tech!

However, Project Loon is now much less like a science project. 2013 saw Google begin working with a balloon manufacturer, Raven Aerostar, which augmented a factory and opened another to make the inflatable “envelope” for the balloons. That summer, Google revealed the existence of the project and described its first small-scale field trials, in which Loon balloons provided Internet service to people in a rural area of New Zealand. Come 2014, Project Loon concentrated on turning a functional but unwieldy prototype into technology that’s ready to expand the world’s communication networks.

Loon’s leaders planned to buy their own space on the radio spectrum so their balloons could operate independently of existing wireless networks. Google CEO Larry Page wasn’t really convinced that that was the way to go so he nixed the idea and said the balloons should instead be leased to wireless carriers, who could use the chunks of the airwaves they already own and put up ground antennas to link the balloons into their networks. Mr. Page, in effect saved Google from spending billions on spectrum licenses and turned prospective competitors into allies. “Nearly every telco we talk to wants to do it,” says Cassidy.

The first version of this system sent new commands to Loon balloons once a day. It could find a way for a balloon launched over New Zealand, for example, to hover over land until prevailing winds pushed it east and over the Pacific Ocean. And then it would have the balloon ride the fastest winds possible for the 9,000-kilometer trip east to Chile. Alas! That system could only get balloons within hundreds of kilometers of their intended target. For tests of Internet service in New Zealand and elsewhere, the company had to cheat, launching Loon balloons nearby to make sure they would be overhead. The winter of 2014, Google upgraded its balloon navigation system to give balloons fresh orders as frequently as every 15 minutes. They can now be steered with superb accuracy over intercontinental distances. Early 2015 saw a balloon traveled 10,000 kilometers and got within 500 meters of its desired cell tower.

Google has had to scratch its head and figure out how to make the balloons tougher, so they can spend more time in the stratosphere. It’s simple, really, the longer they stay up, the lower the cost of operating the network. However, weight considerations mean a balloon’s envelope must be delicate. Having being made from polyethylene plastic with the feel of a heavy-weight trash bag, the material is easily pierced with a fingertip, and a stray grain of grit in the factory can make a pinprick-size hole that will bring a balloon back to earth after less than a fortnight.

Precluding those leaks is the job of a regiment inside Project Loon that has doggedly chased down every possible cause and come up with preventive measures. These researchers have studied balloons retrieved from the stratosphere, hunched over video footage of others inflated to bursting on the ground, and developed a “leak sniffer” to find tiny holes by detecting helium. The leak squad’s findings precipitated alterations in the design of the balloon envelope, fluffier socks for factory workers who must step on the envelopes during production, and novel machines to automate some manufacturing steps.

Technology is not the only thing keeping 4.3 billion people offline, though. For example, policies in India mandate that telecom companies provide coverage to poor as well as rich areas, but the government hasn’t enforced the rules, says Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society, a think tank in Bangalore (what of Kenya, does that happen?). He is also wary of Project Loon because of the way Google and other Western Internet companies have operated in developing countries in recent years. Here’s why: they have cut deals with telecoms in India and other countries to make it free to access their websites, disadvantaging local competitors. “Anyone coming with deep pockets and new technology I would welcome,” he says, but he adds that governments should fix up their patchy regulatory regimes first to ensure that everyone—not just Google and its partners—really does benefit. It reminds of how things in Kenya work, nonetheless, local firms should well-poised.

Finally, those working on Project Loon are confident that the public good will be served. They do seem as motivated by a desire to make people’s lives better as by Loon’s outlandish technology. Nevertheless, Google might be hedging its bets with more than just balloons: in January it invested $900 million in SpaceX. But, we will only start seeing those giant pumpkins in the sky after 1-2 years.


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