INTERNET GIANT Google plans to give internet access to the entire world by sending network-enabled balloons into the stratosphere.
Dubbed Project Loon, the venture aims to liberate those five billion or so people on Earth without internet access, because "for every one person in the world that can get online, there are two that can't".
"Right now in most of the countries in the southern hemisphere, the cost of an internet connection is more than a month's income," Google said in a blog post over the weekend.
"We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds that provide Internet access to the earth below."
Google therefore has put its money behind its ambitions, and has released a set of videos showing the building of such a system, which 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.
Called "these great big round things" by Google's chief technical architect Rich Devail, the balloons are about 15 metres in diameter, but he said, "You would need a telescope if you want to see them in the sky."
Because the Earth's stratosphere has layers of winds that move in opposite directions, the balloons bob up and down between them. Google can steer the balloons via solar power and ensure that they catch the right winds to keep them together and give good internet coverage on the ground.
Google can also shape the patterns of the balloons sailing in the wind so that when one balloon leaves, another balloon is set to take its place. They communicate with specialised internet antennas on the ground, then each balloon talks to its neighbouring balloon and then back down to the ground station, which is connected to the local internet provider. This creates the "network in the sky".
"The antennas have been designed to receive signals from project Loon only to achieve high bandwidth over the long distances involved," explained Devail. "If we didn't filter out the other signals then the technology just wouldn't work."
Though the balloons can be steered generally in the stratosphere, Google said that most of the time the winds flow from west to east, and because the winds generally circulate this way they will be around the world at different latitudes, so eventually a balloon that is over South Africa will be over South America.
Google's project is in its very early stages, and the firm is working on the problem of how to manage a fleet of balloons so that each is in a required area "right when you need it".
"We're solving this with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power," Google said. "Now we need some help [as] this experiment is going to take way more than our team alone."
Google started a pilot programme this week in the Canterbury area of New Zealand, with 50 testers trying to connect to 30 balloons that were all launched at the same time. The firm hopes that this trial will help it learn how to improve its technology and balloon design. µ