How Internet Balloons Could Speed Up Global Development

Is it really all that loony to think that a company could find a way to bring the power of the Internet to even the most rural and remote corners of the planet? We’re talking the Amazon rainforest, the Mojave Desert, and that small town in Montana that’s barely made it on the map. Now, with Project Loon, Google is striving to do just that.

Currently, only 2.7 billion people, or a little more than one-third of the world’s population, have Internet access. In addition, the Internet’s adoption rate is growing by less than 9 percent each year and is expected to slow even further. To break down this barrier for the other two-thirds of the world’s population, companies must find innovative and inexpensive ways to deliver Internet and data access to all remote parts of the world.

More than 5 billion mobile phones are in use throughout the world, including 4 billion feature phones and more than 1 billion smartphones. Smartphones are becoming less expensive with each passing year as more companies are embracing more basic models that appeal to emerging markets. Bringing Internet access to both phones and computers has become a priority to solve among this generation’s major issues.

What Is Project Loon?

Project Loon aims to remedy this problem by bringing the Internet to more people than just the wealthier portion of the population that can currently afford it. The project uses a global network of high-altitude balloons to transmit Internet access to all parts of the world, including developing nations and harder to reach places.

The initiative is still in development stages, but we may see it come to fruition within the next decade. According to Google, the project began in June 2013 with an experimental pilot in New Zealand, where a small group of Project Loon pioneers tested the technology. Those results have then been used to further improve and refine the technology, which are now being tested in an ongoing series of research flights in California’s Central Valley.

Google also reports that the pilot test has expanded to include a greater number of people over a wider area, and the pilot will continue to expand through 2014. Its goal is to establish a ring of uninterrupted connectivity around the 40th southern parallel to provide continuous service to pilot testers at this latitude via its balloon-powered Internet.

Competition From Facebook

Google wasn’t the first to have this idea of global Internet access, and it won’t be the last. Already, Facebook is going head to head with Project Loon using its own Internet.org initiative. According to Information Week, Facebook is taking a three-pronged approach to bringing Internet access to the entire world. It intends to “develop a way to deliver data more efficiently and more affordably; use less data to improve the efficiency of apps; and help businesses drive Internet access by developing a new model to get people online.

In support of these goals, Facebook recently acquired Titan Aerospace, a solar-powered atmospheric drone manufacturer, for $60 million. Facebook plans to use these drones to deliver Internet access to anyone and everyone, regardless of location. While Titan Aerospace once catered to a wide range of industries, including agriculture, space, meteorology and disaster response, post-acquisition, it will now focus solely on Internet.org.

One major difference between Project Loon’s balloons and Internet.org’s drones is the material used for the instruments. Titan Aerospace’s drones are a featherweight aircraft built of composite materials. But Google is still developing a material that can withstand constant expansion and retraction and can prevent rips or tears that could deflate it, according to Pam Desrochers, Google’s balloon manufacturing manager for Project Loon. Both, however, are large, with the surface area of Google’s balloons at 500 square meters, and Titan Aerospace’s drones having a 164-foot wingspan.

Another difference lies in each instrument’s lifespan in the air. While Google’s balloons can stay up in the air for 100 days, Titan Aerospace’s drones can fly for up to five years. Google’s argument, however, is that 100 days is “long enough to get a good life out of it but not so long that we have outmoded technology in the air,” says Desrochers.

Specs aside, Facebook too has big plans for its new Internet drones. In a 10-page document, Zuckerberg asks, “Is Connectivity a Human Right?” He asserts that “The Internet not only connects us to our friends, families and communities, but it is also the foundation of the global knowledge economy.” He goes into the concept of the knowledge economy, which encourages worldwide prosperity and both grows and improves as people learn more and more. This, he believes, can be accomplished through wide expansion of the Internet.

The Consequences Of Global Internet Access

Google has the same idea. By providing Internet access to people around the world, it is promoting the pursuit of knowledge, culture sharing and global understanding. Sharing information via various media has been a primary source of knowledge for centuries. Connecting those media—as well as providing other methods of communication, such as instant messaging, forums and Skype—using global Internet access means more and better transmissions of information than ever before.

But it could have unrealized offshoots as well. The financial implications for such widespread access, for example, would be astronomical, as the number of purchases from country to country would be higher than ever before. It could spur a new limitless global economy of goods including both sales between businesses and consumers and person-to-person transactions.

Teleworking and global business operations could also receive a huge boost from worldwide Internet access. With more people able to access the Internet in more areas, businesses are provided with a new market of untapped workers. They can also remain in better contact with their employees from anywhere in the world, wherever they might need to conduct business.

Another offshoot of widespread Internet access via a high-altitude network of balloons is the ability to bring people back online after disasters, both natural and manmade. Fast and reliable communication between sources both inside and outside the disaster-impacted area is imperative for saving lives, property and nature in the fallout of such an event. Often one of the first services to go down during a disaster is Internet and mobile phone access, so having this new source of Internet connectivity could do wonders for future disaster relief.

But when it comes down to it, this project isn’t 100 percent philanthropic either. For both Google and Facebook, increasing the number of people online means increasing the number of users for their respective online services, which in turn generates more money, particularly in the realm of advertisements. Finding a new market share is important for any company, so the two-thirds of the untapped population given access to their services could prove very beneficial for both companies.

In the end, regardless of Google and Facebook’s motivations and intents, the end result remains the same, and really, everybody wins. Global internet access is the next frontier for this generation and its furthering of communication and knowledge dissemination, so it will be exciting to follow where these projects are headed in the future.

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