Project Loon is an initiative coming out of the Google’s secret research division that aims to provide internet access to two-thirds of the world’s population. Google plans on doing this by using helium inflated balloons that float in the stratosphere which people can connect to through an antenna attached on their home or building. The project was first tested on June 2013 when thirty balloons were released into the air from New Zealand.
An ambitious project indeed, but a few questions remain that will ultimately determine whether the project will be successful:
1. How long will it take for the technology to reach the mass population?
We’re all too familiar with ambitious projects that end up failing. This isn’t to say that Project Loon will fail, but the project is still at a very early stage and has yet to be widely tested across different countries. It won’t be for a few more years (potentially more) until the technology matures, which means the vast majority of people will still be left without internet access. You have to start somewhere of course, but perhaps there are more cost-effective and out-of-the-box solutions that can be used temporarily in the meantime.
2. How will Google sort through international politics?
Keep in mind that the balloons will be travelling across the world based on wind currents, which as Kevin Fitchard from Gigaom pointed out means that the same balloon would pass through Texas and the Middle East. This might not seem like much of an issue on the surface, but we know how silly politicians can sometimes behave. Kevin also mentioned that Google will effectively be an ISP, and will therefore have to be regulated by local governments. This could tricky for Google, as they won’t have all the leverage in terms of what they charge and who has access to the data.
3. How will they deal with hardware failures?
Ranjay Krishna mentions nicely on his blog about the potential hardware issues of balloons:
“The main problem with launching any hardware project is the certainty of eventual hardware failure. In most cases, the hardware is usually accessible and can be fixed. However, for airplanes, rockets, satellites, and now Loon balloons, hardware failure is a huge problem as they can not be reached. If a Loon balloon fails, it can either remain up in the air floating, making it difficult to bring down or it might go down in unwanted areas. Both of these scenarios are a huge concern to the stability as well as the safety of people whose lives might be affected by unwanted balloon landings.”
We only touched on a few key issues about the Project and there are certainly many other legitimate issues that we could get into. This isn’t a purely humanitarian effort being led by Google, as there’s a clear incentive to grab two-thirds of the population onto the Google platform. Like many projects, it’s success will dependent on precise execution that takes into consideration the technical aspects of the project, the politics, and a deep understanding of the end users.