If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where Internet access is readily available, it’s easy to assume that people everywhere can tap into the power of the Web with a touch of a button.
In reality, two out of every three people in developing countries—and close to 4 billion people worldwide—lack basic Internet access, according a report put out last week by the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency that tracks global Internet usage. Although better technology and bigger networks have brought the Internet to nearly 3 billion more people since 2000, it’s sobering to realize that coverage gaps still keep half the world in the dark.
But what if the Internet—arguably the world’s most important source of information, innovation, and self-improvement—could be put into the hands of those who need it most? What if hundreds of millions of people mired in poverty were equipped with the same tools and insights available to their counterparts in the Internet-enabled world?
Cue magic internet balloons
Delivering Internet to the rest of the world is exactly the goal Google has set out to accomplish with Project Loon, an effort to bring the Internet to remote areas using—wait for it—massive balloons floating miles above Earth’s surface. The search giant has been developing technology to get its fleet of inflatable Internet beacons off the ground since 2013. At its annual developer’s conference last week, a senior company official reemphasized Google’s commitment to bringing its vision to life. Google wants to “bring the next billion users online,” said Sundar Pichai, Google’s senior vice president of Chrome and apps.
Google is already famous for testing the limits of technological innovation with forward-thinking and whimsically named projects (see also: Project Jacquard, Google’s just-announced bid to make—I kid you not—touchscreen pants), but Project Loon might be the company’s most mind-boggling endeavor yet. Picture this: Thousands of balloons the size of school buses circling the globe, beaming Internet connectivity to areas well outside the reach of traditional cellular or broadband networks.
Here’s how it works: Google has developed software that remotely monitors which areas need coverage, then uses wind data to positions its balloons accordingly. Wind patterns vary by altitude in predictable ways miles above Earth’s surface, so by tweaking the amount of air in a given balloon, the software can control its altitude and thus its trajectory. From there, radio transmitters on board the balloons link users on the ground with existing telecommunications networks. (To read more about the technology behind the project, check out the Project Loon website.)
In a video posted to the project’s YouTube account in April, Google announced it has begun scaling up every aspect of the project—from how many balloons it manufactures, to how quickly they can be launched, to how long they stay afloat.
Whereas early prototypes might only be airborne for a matter of hours, current models can stay afloat for 100 days—long enough to circle the planet 3 times at roughly 30 miles per hour. Google is working to help connected devices achieve speeds comparable to 4G LTE (i.e. what many of us currently enjoy on our cellphones).
Others getting into the act
Google isn’t the only big-name tech company working to expand the Internet’s reach. As my colleage Michael Wilson wrote back in February , Facebook recently brought free mobile Internet to India through its Internet.org initiative, which partners with regional telecom companies to provide mobile users with a free suite of basic online sites and services.
Billionaire tech mogul Elon Musk has also proposed launching a network of thousands of micro-satellites to beam internet worldwide—a plan that sounds just a little bit like a Bond villain, but I digress.
What’s in it for the world—and Google?
A cynical take on Project Loon, and initiatives like it, would be to accuse Google and company of trying to pad their own pockets by expanding the pool of potential customers for their products and services. This certainly wouldn’t be the first time corporate self-interest drove innovation and public accessibility. That said, Google is quick to emphasize the project’s more altruistic potential benefits, particularly for the underserved. In an introductory video about the project, Google envisions a world in which communities without enough doctors can seek medical advice online, and children who lack the means to attend school can quench their thirst for learning through online coursework.
No matter which spin you put on Google’s motive, it’s easy to see how ventures like Project Loon could soon empower people in poverty to improve their lives in a big way—the UN has been touting the role of internet connectivity in fighting poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals since at least 2010.
(It should be noted that equality of Internet access is only half the battle—ensuring that people everywhere can find content online they can actually use matters, too. A recent report published by The Guardian and sponsored by the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences describes how the vast majority of the world’s spoken languages are underrepresented or nonexistent online. But that’s a topic for another time.)
Personally, I’m excited to see Project Loon take off (pun very much intended). Tech companies routinely promise “world-changing” innovation (as satirized on the HBO show Silicon Valley, among other recent pop culture offerings), but all too often that innovation never reaches most of the world. Its methods may seem whimsical and its scope a moonshot, but if Project Loon achieves even a fraction of its stated goal, millions of people might soon be surfing the Web en route to a better life.