How Google plans to use 13 balloons to bring Internet access to every person in Sri Lanka.

Back in the day, we all had to access the Internet through our telephone landlines.

GIF from America Online.


But soon, thanks to a new project from Google, you might find yourself accessing the Internet with the help of a ... balloon?

It's called Project Loon and it began on New Zealand's South Island in 2013 as an attempt to bring network connectivity to farmers in isolated areas where physical wires were difficult or too costly to install, or were just too remote for consistent reception.

Here's a look at the earlier phases of the project that used remote-controlled balloons (like weather balloons, not the birthday kind) in place of traditional landlines or satellites to broadcast LTE cellular service (that's the same kind of signal that pings your cellphone and lets you play Farmville on the road):

After success from the experiments in New Zealand, Sri Lanka is slated to be the first country to offer balloon-based Internet access to everyone.

In late July 2015, the Sri Lankan government signed an agreement with Google to bring broadband Internet access to all 21 million people on the island — a significant step up from the estimated 2.8 million mobile connections and 606,000 landlines currently available.

"The entire Sri Lankan island — every village from Dondra to Point Pedro — will be covered with affordable high speed Internet using Google Loon's balloon technology," IT and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said in an interview with the India Times. The Sri Lankan government will monitor and regulate the balloons just like any other utility, allowing local Internet service providers to purchase access for their subscribers.

Not bad for 13 polyethylene balloons floating above the Indian Ocean.

Image from "The Wizard of Oz."

Project Loon essentially uses weather balloons as satellites. The balloons broadcast 3G network access from the stratosphere (fancy!) to remote locations that otherwise can't get coverage.

We've all experienced those annoying Internet dead zones where signals are blocked by geographic features or where you're just so isolated that it's not practical to build a tower or install wires. Unfortunately, that's still how it is for people in large parts of the world.

Google describes Project Loon as "a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters."

Each balloon spends 100 days at a time floating in the stratosphere (about 12 miles up from the surface of the Earth, which is way higher than your next cross-country flight) and can provide LTE service to an area about 25 miles in diameter. And don't worry — they fly 'em back home when those 100 days are up, so there's no balloon-waste killing the environment.

Basically it's a giant, remote-controlled, windsurfing drone-modem. You know, in case "Internet-balloon" didn't sound weird enough.

GIF from the Webby Awards.

Regular Internet access is still only available to about a third of the world's population, but experiments like Project Loon are helping to connect people across the globe.

The Internet is so embedded in most of our lives that it's difficult to imagine a world without it — and yet, that's how two-thirds of the world lives each and every day. You know those computer kiosks at your local library? (You have been to your local library, yes?) In some countries, that's one of the only places people can get online. And there are countries where you can't even do that.

So instead of worrying about your 18-second page load times and how annoying it is when Netflix takes 20 seconds to buffer, think about all the information you can find online with just a tap of your finger. That resource is only going to get richer as we include more people in it.

In conclusion, balloons are awesome. Say it with me:


GIF from MC Webmasta.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
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