Project Loon’s Big City Challenge


In June, Google announced Project Loon, an initiative that will use a network of solar-powered balloons to bring Internet connectivity (3G-like speeds, anyway) to remote areas of the world or to bring people back online after disasters.

The idea calls for the balloons to float in the earth’s stratosphere, about 20 kilometers above surface, and receive Internet connectivity from ground stations. Users, meanwhile, link in using special antennas.

After getting Project Loon underway in New Zealand, Google has since begun to conduct a series of “research flights” in California’s Central Valley to help it determine ways to improve the technology, focusing on the platform's power systems and radio configuration.

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Most recently, Google flew a balloon over Fresno to determine how the platform performed when it was in the presence of a bunch of other radio signals and quickly discovered that such noisy conditions have the potential to deflate the platform's capabilities. 

“It turns out that providing Internet access to a busy city is hard because there are already many other radio signals around, and the balloons’ antennas pick up a lot of that extra noise,” Google explained in a blog post, the first in a series that will show what Google is learning from these tests. “This increases the error-rate in decoding the Loon signal, so the signal has to be transmitted multiple times, decreasing the effective bandwidth.”

Google, which will  likened this problem to talking to a friend at a loud concert, when you might be required to repeat what you said.

But Google doesn’t seem to be too worried about it, holding that it should be able to resolve it simply by boosting  the power of the signal. Besides, Project Loon’s primary mission isn’t really focused on big cities; Google sees it filling Internet gaps in remote regions of the globe that don’t have connectivity.

And a big name is already trying to poke a hole in Google's Internet baloon. Bill Gates is critical of the project, telling Business Week that serving the health needs for poor areas of the world carry a higher priority than Internet connectivity.  

“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,” he said. “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there's no website that relieves that. Certainly I'm a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-healthcare centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we're going to do something about malaria."