Google’s latest Internet project isn’t quite out of this world, but it is taking shape in the earth’s stratosphere.  

Project Loon, as it’s called, aims to use a network of solar-powered balloons to bring the Internet to remote areas of the world (Google estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have Internet access)  and to “help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.” 

Google is getting this years-in-the-making project off the ground with the release of 30 balloons above New Zealand. While the project won’t produce speeds anywhere near the 1 Gigabits per second that Google Fiber can achieve or even get within shouting distance of the 12 Mbps downstream speeds supported by ViaSat’s Exede satellite broadband service, Project Loon will start off with 3G-like speeds – enough for some basic Internet tasks.

Project Loon’s network of Internet-capable balloons is designed to float in the earth’s stratosphere, about 20 kilometers above the earth’s surface. The balloon network receives Internet connectivity from ground stations and users link in using special antennas.

Here’s now Google describes it:  “Project Loon uses software algorithms to determine where its balloons need to go, then moves each one into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to form one large communications network.”

The plan is to build multiple bands of these balloons at different latitudes, and “steer” the balloons the earth’s stratosphere as they float in a west-to-east formation.

This video offers some additional background on how Project Loon works:

At the start,  Google will limit Project Loon access to a group of about 50 testers in the Canterbury area of New Zealand. It will then refine and technology before setting up the next phase of the project.

According to this blog post by Project Loon project lead Mike Cassidy, Google intends to set up pilots in countries at the same latitude as New Zealand. "We imagine someday you'll be able to use your cell phone with your existing service provider to connect to the balloons and get connectivity where there is none today," he wrote.

Google hasn’t pinpointed a business model for the high-flying idea or talked about the costs, but Cassidy told the Daily Telegraph that the system could eventually be made deliver low-cost access to areas that are untouched by the Internet today.  

"The cool thing is, the technology we used to build this is mostly the cost of shelf parts, pretty simple plastic film about as thick as a piece of paper, the electronics are sort of off the shelf electronics,” he told the paper. “So we think there's very good promise of being able to have a service that's affordable and helps people who can't afford Internet today."