“Sometimes,” the cute kid narrating the launch video said, “everyone doesn’t mean everyone.” Like when we say “everyone’s” online, despite the fact that two thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have access to the Internet.
Depending where they are, these people aren’t just missing out on cute cats and porn; they could also be missing out on education, medical care, and access to markets. It’s a major problem that affects billions, and an effective solution could, quite literally, transform the world we live in.
In short, it’s the perfect situation for a Google moonshot: the magical conjunction of a huge problem, a radical solution, and a breakthrough technology.
Those who have tried to tackle this problem in the past have focused on getting high-altitude platforms to stay in one place so they can provide consistent coverage: so, dirigibles that use fans or engines to navigate against the wind, or balloons that are tethered to the ground. But these ideas generate self-reinforcing problems. The dirigible, for example, has to be a significant size in order to maintain the large engine necessary to keep it stable against the wind, which gives it a larger surface area to be pushed around by the wind, which means the engine has to be even bigger in order to compensate for the greater forces, which means the dirigible has to be bigger…
The team at Google[x] may have solved this problem by ignoring it altogether. They asked themselves, “What if we didn’t need to keep the platform in one place at all? What if we just set it free altogether?”
That’s the idea behind Project Loon: a global network of stratospheric balloons, using wind and solar power to operate at 20 kilometers (roughly 60,000 feet) above the earth, beaming fast, affordable Internet to rural, remote, and underserved areas below. Because the winds at that height tend to operate in consistent layers, these balloons can be “steered” by moving them up and down into the desired wind current. The overall network can be orchestrated in a careful ballet to ensure coverage far and wide.
A network such as this would also be invaluable in the event of natural disasters: floating serenely above earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes or hurricanes, Loon can offer continuous coverage at precisely those times when it is most needed.
It’s a terrific initiative for Google, one with much more obvious, direct, and far-reaching consequences than driverless cars or Google Glass. It makes possible the three billion new minds coming online Peter Diamandis invoked in his TED talk. And, although they didn’t mention it at the launch event, if it works it has the added benefit for the company of tripling its potential market size.
Right now the technology is only available to about 50 pilot testers in the Canterbury region around Christchurch, but they’re looking for help: “Over time, we’d like to set up pilots in countries at the same latitude as New Zealand. We also want to find partners for the next phase of our project -- we can’t wait to hear feedback and ideas from people who’ve been working for far longer than we have on this enormous problem of providing Internet access to rural and remote areas.”
Bringing the Internet to the billions of people who don’t yet have it is a huge ambition. But Google is well positioned to accomplish it, and the folks I talked to on the Loon team were positively giddy about the challenge. Wouldn’t you be, if your employer offered you a shot at the moon?