Google Project Loon: Method in the Madness

Earlier this year Google announced ‘Project Loon’. This, in case you missed it, is Google’s ‘crazy’ plan for bringing Internet access to the billions of people that don’t have it yet – using balloons.

Currently trialling in New Zealand, Loon is essentially a network in the sky and its name stems from the fact that it’s powered by a series of balloons that are floated up in the sky to create a mesh network by communicating with each other, and Internet connected ground stations on l
and. Oh, the name also hints that as an idea it’s crazy, but cool.

google-project-loon-designboom00

It is indeed a lovely idea, using the world’s natural air current to flow balloons carrying internet access round the world, to those millions that don’t have any other realistic way of gaining internet access. The video certainly paints a picture of helping to save the world by to quote: “working to bring the technologies of access to everyone on the planet.” That sounds pretty great, as does the slogan, “Loon for all.”

Call me a cynic, but then I first heard of it I have to admit that while I thought it was a ‘neat idea, part of me wondered if it wasn’t just Google wanting to get its ad platform in front of even more people, and especially before anyone else got there first.

Indeed my sentiments were expressed quickly by none other than Bill Gates, who took a ‘pop’ at the project telling Bloomberg Businessweek that Google’s attempt to bring the digital revolution to those that don’t have safe water to drink wasn’t actually that great of an idea. “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you.”

(Bill Gates of course heads up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that is working on eradicating Malaria in Africa).

The cynicism was reawakened this week by this Telecoms.com article that reported on how a patent application from Google has come to light which indicates that Google might well have monetisation on its mind for Loon. The catchily titled “Balloon Clumping to Provide Bandwidth Requested in Advance” patent, describes a way of deploying multiple balloons on one area to cope with high bandwidth demand areas on spec, such as for “large conferences or concert goers”, which doesn’t sound particularly focussed on the developing world.

It’s again a good idea, though and if you’ve ever been at the Broadband World Forum when the Wi-Fi goes down you certainly wouldn’t be averse to Google floating a balloon overhead to give you connectivity.

Providing more bandwidth on demand in areas of sudden demand isn’t a fresh idea of course, and AT&T in the US brings in distributed antenna systems (DAS) to stadiums to provide Wi-Fi for just such scenarios. (A Google balloon is a lot cooler though).

However the bandwidth provided is said to be around 3G speeds, which in an LTE age isn’t that exciting, though that depends on whether that’s base 3G (384Kbps) or full fat DC-HSDPA, which can compete with low end LTE. My hunch is more the former than the latter.

So if Loon turns out to be more about us being able to send picture of the band to our mates as we rock out at a concert, rather than helping a farmer in Africa check prices for his crops we might just have something else to feel guilty about as we check in on Facebook during the show.

Let’s hope it’s about both, and can make a difference to everyone’s lives, wherever they’re from.

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