More than just hot air

Google announced the launch of a network of high altitude balloons to provide Internet services in Sri lanka. Does this mean free Internet for everybody?

Google Loon is a project by Google X, which is also the search giant’s unit behind self-driving cars and Google Glass.In June 2015, Google signed an agree- ment with the Sri Lankan govern- ment to deploy Project Loon here. According to Google, Project Loon has three objectives: to connect internet devices in rural or remote areas, fill coverage gaps and bring people back online after disasters. Sri Lanka’s 22 million population and relatively compact landmass makes it an ideal place for a Loon network, according to Google.

Once the balloons are in the air, expected by March 2016, Google will discuss with local mobile telecom operators about revenue-sharing agreements for providing wireless Internet or
4G services using the balloons, which float 20 kilometres above the earth’s surface, almost like floating towers. At this altitude there is no lightning and certainly no aircraft or birds. The balloons and the wireless Internet equip- ment they carry will be powered by sunlight harnessed by solar panels.

Each balloon can connect an area of around 40km in diameter. Google’s Mission Control will direct the balloons, relying on upper stratospheric wind to keep them in place by guiding them in and out of wind currents.

The Loon balloons can remain in the stratosphere for around 100 days before they have to be landed and replaced by another balloon to take its place. Using a GPS tracking device, a team has to then recover the landed balloons. Recovering the balloons is important for the environment and the material used in the bal- loons can be recycled and reused, or repurposed into new balloons.





(Photographer: Trey Ratcliff)