Google’s Internet-beaming balloons to take off in Indonesia

30 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Google Inc’s ‘Loon’ Internet tests to be done in Indonesia.

Google plans to launch powered balloons able to transmit a signal to ground stations. MOUNTAIN VIEW (California) — Google’s Internet-beaming balloons are ready to take off on the next phase of their mission to deliver online access in regions where most people live offline.The ambitious “Project Loon” is aimed at delivering Internet connections to remote or impoverished areas worldwide using a floating network of thousands of the high-tech balloons.Google co-founder Sergey Brin suggested Wednesday that the company’s recent re-organization into a holding company may free some units to move ahead of others. “We already do quite a lot of business in China, although it has not been an easy country for us,” Mr. Test balloons have already survived 10 million miles of test drives across Indonesia’s treacherous jungles and mountains. “Through balloon-to-balloon communication, Project Loon has the capability to transmit signal from areas that are connected to an Internet groundstation and bounce that signal across a constellation of balloons and back down to even the most remote islands,” the Google X team posted on G+. “In flight testing, the Loon team has already been able to wirelessly transfer data between individual balloons floating over 100 km [60 miles] apart in the stratosphere, enabling local network operators to extend their Internet service into areas that are too difficult to reach with current technology.” After first using software algorithms to determine where Loon balloons need to fly, the engineers launch balloons 10 miles above the Earth’s surface into the stratosphere.

Once on the edge of space, the balloons will be twice as high as commercial airliners, above any bad weather and barely visible to the naked eye, Google said. About 250 million people live in the country made up of about 17,000 islands, although only 42 million have Internet access, according to the CIA’s estimates. Google’s programme, called “Project Loon”, aims to change that by transmitting high-speed Internet signals from clusters of balloons floating about 60,000 feet above the Earth. Indonesia comprises thousands of islands, some of them mountainous or thick with jungle, which make it tricky to run fiber optic cables or install mobile-phone towers.

Although the project is still being funded primarily by money that Google makes from digital advertising, it recently became part of an independent lab called X that is run by Google’s new parent company, Alphabet. Google ceased most operations in mainland China in 2010 following cyberattacks against Gmail users and disagreements with the government over censorship of search results. Alphabet frames Project Loon as a noble endeavour striving to get about 100 million currently unconnected people tapped into the vast reservoir of knowledge, entertainment and conveniences available online.

But it could also enrich Google by expanding the potential audience that can query its search engine, watch video on YouTube, correspond through Gmail and click on digital ads. Project Loon is still testing its technology, so there is still no estimate when it will start selling the Internet service to households and businesses within range of the balloons. Brin stepped back from day-to-day Google operations in recent years, as product chief Sundar Pichai took on more responsibility and this year was named CEO of Google as part of the restructuring. The Internet access will be sold through wireless service providers in Indonesia, where the number of mobile phones — about 319 million — outnumbers people.

But most of those phones do not connect to the Internet because users are unable to afford data plans, or more frequently, live in remote or rocky terrains where it is impractical or too expensive to install the equipment needed to deliver high-speed Internet access. The reorganization separated the main Google businesses including advertising, Search, YouTube and Android from longer-term, speculative bets such as Nest, Life Sciences and the X research lab. To pull it off, the project’s engineers must choreograph a high-altitude dance, ensuring that as one balloon drifts out of a targeted territory’s Internet-receiving range, another one will float in to fill the void. It has flown tests of the helium-filled balloons, each about 40ft tall and shaped like an upside-down raindrop, in such countries as Australia, Chile and Brazil, and has worked with local telecommunications firms to integrate the balloons with the Internet.

Project Loon vice-president Mike Cassidy said the Indonesian partnership marks the first time it will send signals from multiple telecommunications companies through a single balloon. “In effect, Loon is building mobile phone towers for the telcos,” said Mr Cassidy. “But the towers we’re building are 20,000 metres in the sky.” Eventually, Project Loon envisions dispatching its balloons to other unconnected regions in the world, ranging from small villages in Africa to the woods of California. Google runs Android, the world’s largest mobile-operating system, and that complicated Loon negotiations in the past because its service could connect to phones running other operating systems. Mr Brin envisions Project Loon eventually creating millions of jobs around the world to raise the standard of living for now-impoverished people as they are able to get online to educate themselves and make new connections. “It’s going to take a number of companies and governments and organisations coming together to provide communications to everyone, but we are super-excited to play a role,” said Mr Brin. Telkom, the country’s largest telecommunication company, expressed reservations that Project Loon would compete with it, undercutting investments in fiber optic networks and frequency licenses.

Now, executives running Loon “should not be worried about what operating systems those phones are on or what other business relationships Google has,” Mr. Brin said. “They don’t feel entangled in a complex way, so that’s been working really well for us.” More from WSJ.D: And make sure to visit WSJ.D for all of our news, personal tech coverage, analysis and more, and add our XML feed to your favorite reader. In June, Google signed a memorandum of understanding with Sri Lanka’s government, calling it an important step but cautioning it was still early in the process.

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