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Google balloons to bring Internet to remote areas

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By FRANCE 24 : Google is preparing to launch Internet-beaming balloons into the stratosphere with the aim of extending online access to the entire world. Is the initiative philanthropic, or just the latest attempt by Google to expand its empire?

After the Web-surfing glasses and driverless car, Google has a new project up its sleeve.

On June 15, the US Internet giant unveiled its plans for a programme it has been developing in its mysterious Google X lab. Called “Loon” (short for “balloon”, but also a colloquialism meaning crazy person), the project looks set to live up to its name.

To illustrate how the new project works, more than thirty helium-inflated balloons were sent floating at roughly twelve miles altitude in the sky above Christchurch, New Zealand (twice as high as airplanes and well below satellites). Equipped with solar panels generating electricity, the balloons are intended to bring the Internet to regions that currently are not fully “connected” – particularly in Africa and southeast Asia.

The “Loon” programme would also enable Web access to be speedily re-established after natural disasters, like the 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people in Christchurch.

The Internet speed offered by Loon “is equivalent to that of 3G [third-generation high-speed network] and each balloon provides a connection for the surrounding 40 kilometres”, specified Frenchman Johan Mathe, one of the engineers in charge of the project.

The main challenge remains controlling the movement of the balloons to protect them from the wind’s impact and make sure they reach the targeted zones. Like Google’s search engine, the Loon balloons use complex algorithms to determine their route, allowing them to change altitude and find the winds that will bring them to their programmed destination.

Growing the empire

Though only a few dozen balloons have been released into the New Zealand sky for the moment, Google is planning on having as many as 300 circling the globe by the end of the year, bringing Internet access to parts of Australia, South Africa and Argentina.

For the time being, Google has not specified how much money has been invested in the Loon programme thus far or how much the company anticipates spending on the programme’s expansion.

The uncontested king of online advertising, Google could further expand its empire by promising to bring Internet to regions of the world that have been largely offline until now.

Still, aside from financial considerations, the creation of a large network of balloons would require special permission in order to be launched in certain countries. In the US, for example, Google would have to inform the Federal Aviation Administration for any launching or landing of a balloon.

Google is reportedly already in contact with the equivalent agencies in other countries in order to familiarise itself with the legal requirements of such an operation.

Google has had success navigating legal hurdles for one of its other innovations, the driverless car. In California, a bill authorising their use has already been approved and signed by the state’s governor.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Source: France 24


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