Google is experimenting with balloons that beam the Internet from the sky. The helium-filled balloons are made from a thin polyethylene film and are 15 meters (49 feet) in diameter when fully inflated. They float in the stratosphere about 20 kilometers (12 miles) above the Earth.
Eighteen months in the works, the top-secret project was announced Saturday in New Zealand, where up to 50 volunteer households are already beginning to receive the Internet briefly on their home computers via translucent helium balloons that sail by on the wind 12 miles above Earth.
“It’s a huge moonshot, a really big goal to go after,” said project leader Mike Cassidy. “The power of the Internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time.”
The so-called Project Loon was developed in the clandestine Google X lab that also came up with a driverless car and Google’s Web-surfing eyeglasses.
Google would not say how much it is investing in the project or how much customers will be charged when it is up and running.
The first person to get Google Balloon Internet access this week was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in the small town of Leeston who signed up for the experiment. Technicians attached a bright red, basketball-size receiver resembling a giant Google map pin to the outside of his home.
In a successful preliminary test, Nimmo received the Internet for about 15 minutes before the 49-foot-wide transmitting balloon he was relying on floated out of range.
The balloons would sail on the stratosphere’s winds in a continuous circuit around the globe. The balloons come equipped with flight computers, and Google would control the balloons’ altitude from the ground, keeping them moving along a desired channel by using different winds at different heights.
Google says past attempts to control balloons have involved tethering them or using expensive motors to keep them in place. They say simply sailing with the winds was one of the company’s breakthrough ideas.
The balloons have the potential to provide Internet access far more cheaply, quickly and widely than traditional underground fiber cables. One downside is that computer users on the ground would need to install a receiver to get the signal.
The transmitter on each balloon would beam down the Internet to an area about 1,250 square kilometers (780 square miles) – twice the size of New York City.