Google launches internet balloons
Wrinkled and skinny at first, the translucent, jellyfish-shaped balloons that Google released this week from a frozen field in the heart of New Zealand's South Island hardened into shiny pumpkins as they rose into the blue winter skies above Lake Tekapo, passing the first big test of a lofty goal to get the entire planet online.
It was the culmination of 18 months' work on what Google calls Project Loon, in recognition of how wacky the idea may sound. Developed in the secretive X lab that came up with a driverless car and web-surfing eyeglasses, the flimsy helium-filled inflatables beam the internet down to Earth as they sail past on the wind.
Still in their experimental stage, the balloons were the first of thousands that Google's leaders eventually hope to launch 12 miles (20km) into the stratosphere in order to bridge the gaping digital divide between the world's 4.8 billion unwired people and their 2.2 billion plugged-in counterparts.
If successful, the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of laying fibre cable, dramatically increasing internet usage in places such as Africa and Southeast Asia.
"It's a huge moonshot. A really big goal to go after," said project leader Mike Cassidy. "The power of the internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time."
The first person to get Google Balloon Internet access this week was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in the small town of Leeston. He found the experience a little bemusing after he was one of 50 locals who signed up to be a tester for a project that was so secret no-one would explain to them what was happening. Technicians came to the volunteers' homes and attached to the outside walls bright red receivers the size of basketballs and resembling giant Google map pins.
Mr Nimmo got the internet for about 15 minutes before the balloon transmitting it sailed on past. His first stop on the web was to check out the weather because he wanted to find out if it was an optimal time for "crutching" his sheep, a term he explained to the technicians refers to removing the wool around sheep's rear ends. He is among the many rural folk, even in developed countries, who cannot get broadband access. After ditching his dial-up four years ago in favour of a satellite internet service, he has found himself stuck with hefty bills.
While the concept is new, people have used balloons for communication, transportation and entertainment for centuries. In recent years, the military and aeronautical researchers have used tethered balloons to beam internet signals back to bases on Earth.
Google's balloons fly free and out of sight, scavenging power from card table-sized solar panels that dangle below and gather enough charge in four hours to power them for a day as the balloons sail around the globe on the prevailing winds. Far below, ground stations with internet capabilities about 60 miles (100km) apart bounce signals up to the balloons. The signals would hop forward, from one balloon to the next, along a backbone of up to five balloons.
Each balloon would provide internet service for an area twice the size of New York City, about 780 square miles (1,250 sq km), and terrain is not a challenge. They could stream internet into Afghanistan's steep and winding Khyber Pass or Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, a country where the World Bank estimates only four out of every 100 people are online.