Just weeks after the launch of Facebook’s free internet initiative in India, the world is about to become even smaller, thanks to Google’s Project Loon. The company has recently unveiled its new fleet of super-advanced balloons, which have the ability to transmit wireless internet to some of the remotest areas of the planet from the upper edges of the atmosphere.
“Communication satellites are typically pretty expensive, hundreds of millions to build and a hundred million plus to launch,” says Mike Cassidy, the engineer and entrepreneur who has been tasked with making Project Loon a reality. “Whereas the balloons are an order of magnitude or two cheaper to operate on a daily basis, even for a global network… You’re only four to five months away from having a fresh balloon. New technologies come, new compression algorithms, the electronics can be updated, so you have a pretty fresh fleet in the air at any time.”
Project Loon is past the testing stage, and Cassidy and his team are now in the process of reaching out to commercial partners. When compared to other ventures which are equally innovative but less immediately attainable, Project Loon is a clear win for Google, says Ben Popper at The Verge: “As Google Glass undergoes a reset, and driverless cars remain years away from commercial viability, Loon looks increasingly like the poster child for bringing a disruptive new technology out of Google’s labs and into the real world.”
Google also confirmed this week that it will be launching its own mobile phone network. “We don’t intend to be a network operator at scale,” explains Senior VP Sunday Pichai, who made the announcement at Mobile World Congress. “Carrier partners are the ones who provide services and we are actually working with carrier partners. Our goal here is to drive a set of innovation which we think the eco-system will adopt… The core of Android, everything we do, we take an eco-system approach, we work with partners and anything we do with connectivity would have the same attributes.”
At present, Google’s mobile plans look set to be a US-only endeavour, and more details on the mobile and balloon networks will surely be forthcoming at May’s developer conference. In the meantime, Project Loon and Google’s broader ambitions can be summed up in a single line, uttered by Pichai during his keynote in Barcelona this week: “We have always tried to push the boundary of what’s next.”