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Google begins world-first balloon-borne broadband trial in Canterbury

Google has kicked off its "Project Loon trial" in Canterbury this afternoon.

The scheme involved using balloons, flying at 20km - twice the altitude of commercial aircraft. The balloons beam wireless broadband at 3G-level bandwidth (the sort of internet speed most people get from their cellphone).

Around 30 balloons have been launched as part of the trial. Collectively, they will offer broadband to a 10,000 square kilometre area.

Google spokeswoman Annie Baxter says 50 Christchurch homes have been given antennas that let them pick up a wireless broadband signal when one of the balloons is within 20kim.

Entrepreneur Charles Nimmo became the first to connect.

Ms Baxter says Google is working with the Crown-owned Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand (or Reannz) on broadband connectivity for the project. Reannz operates the high-speed $100 million Karen network used by universities and research institutes.

"Though we use similar frequencies as normal wi-fi, we have designed Loon to work using a specialized, non-standard radio protocol - that means our radios and antennas can only receive Loon signals and they filter out ground-based wi-fi. We have to do this to achieve high bandwidth over the long distances (20+ km) involved," Ms Baxter tells NBR.

2.4GHz and 5.8GHz ISM (industrial-scientific-medical) radio bands are being used for the trial.

ABOVE: Media shoal around one of the balloons (via @FedFarmers).

Once it finds partners, the search giant sees bands of balloons circling the earth at the same latitude, providing broadband from above for those living in remote areas, or caught without internet access after a natural disaster.

There was no immediate word on the cost of the project, or what (if any) connection costs might be charged once it's up and running proper.

Another Google broadband initiative, Google Fibre in the US, sees ultrafast internet offered free (bar a $US300 one-off connection fee) as a basic service, and up to $US120 a month with various extras including full-speed access and TV channels.

Google says for the moment, "there are major cost challenges".

Each balloon is equipped with a solar panel "the size of a basketball backboard" and a batttery about 10-times the size of a laptop's. With all-day sun guaranteed in the stratesophere, Google says the batteries will charge enough to last through the night, allowing for 24x7 flying.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker says, “We couldn’t be prouder that Canterbury is the first place in the world to pilot this new technology from Google. Here in Christchurch, we’re well aware of the importance of connectivity in crisis situations, and Project Loon could be of major benefit to aid organisations and disaster-affected governments alike as they help get cities up and running again."

Installing the altitude control system. The balloons change altitude to catch wind currents in different directions.

ABOVE: Loons being repared, then flying near the Southern Alps; an antenna for receiving balloon-born broadband (images above and below via Google; click to zoom).

Federated Farmers CEO Connor English says, “Access to rural broadband is critical to New Zealand’s future. It is the next big enabler to improve productivity in our export and tourism sectors and more importantly, it recognises one key point; rural people are people too. Project Loon could address the deficit in rural infrastructure and deliver great benefit to people and businesses based in the countryside.” 

ABOVE: Flight of the loons: the balloons' anticipated flight path after their Saturday afternoon launch. Click to zoom.
Gooogle says many projects have looked at high-altitude platforms to provide Internet access to fixed areas on the ground, but trying to stay in one place like this requires a system with major cost and complexity. 
"So the idea we pursued was based on freeing the balloons and letting them sail freely on the winds. All we had to do was figure out how to control their path through the sky," the company said in a statement.
"We’ve now found a way to do that, using just wind and solar power: we can move the balloons up or down to catch the winds we want them to travel in. That solution then led us to a new problem: how to manage a fleet of balloons sailing around the world so that each balloon is in the area you want it right when you need it. We’re solving this with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power."

Comments and questions

Amazing. Well done Google - again.

How long before one gets into the wrong height and brings down a plane?

Wanting to provide coverage to those parts of the world not already reached, in the context of Prism, is like extending the chicken coup for the fox!

Fantastic - no need for fibre and profiteering telcos.

Yay cheap internet as it was design for!

Not sure if you've used 3G for non-linear browsing off a phone, but it isn't particularly quick, and definitely wont fill the void for those that 'need' the internet for business purposes.


No need for fibre? Don't you understand physics? Terrestrial is always going to be faster than wireless. This is 3G speed. Try torrenting your Game of Thrones episodes through this

Cheap Internet? Nothing cheap about maintaining these balloons

I'm not sure where you get that idea. With a potential catchement of several billion cost per user could be infinitesemal.

for one that 2.4Ghz red Aerial on the side of your house is not cheap or small

if its "free" then you are the product

There are plenty of alternatives to Fibre. We've just bought the marketing spin of Chorus and our $900m plus investment by Govt.

And yes, Loon is 3G speeds, but the end effect could be incredibly interesting...

wireless vs terrestrial wired

I'm talking about the physics around it

Sure I can browse fine over 3G, wired will be faster/"cheaper"

"Project leader Mike Cassidy told reporters that if successful, the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of installing fibre-optic cable." Furthermore 4G and Samsungs future 5G can reach speeds up to 10Gb/s.

As for expence Google has multiple revenue streams so having an extra 2.4 billion peple to advertise to would easily cover costs.

Hahaha - "Samsungs future 5G can reach speeds up to 10Gb/s". Sure it can - I'll be sure to use that service once I get back from my time travel holiday.

I'm all for wireless, I think it's fantastic, but the reality is that if the time comes that we are getting 10 gig over the air, it will be when we are in our flying cars.

Can Google guarantee that if one of these balloons should fail, it will never ever bring down an aircraft? Without a 100% guarantee, I don't see how these balloons can be regarded as safe for the purpose they are intended for.


Can anyone guarantee 100% a plane will never crash for any reason? If not, I can't imagine the authorities ever letting them fly.

You need to actually read the article.

The balloons fly above standard flight paths by at least 18,000 feet.

All of the balloons are monitored and integrate with air traffic control.

A nonsense statement.

I said fail!

I have to say, that looking at this balloon set up, I'm not sure it would bring down a commercial airline!

Might be ok for skyping, reading the news, checking trademe and emails; but won't be much chop -- for streaming videos or uploading heavy-duty content.

Just like the gas that gets this balloon airborne, the service capabilities are sure to be Lite.

Isn't it cute SkyNet is taking its first baby steps.

The NSA will be pleased at Google breaking in green-fields for it.

Westinghouse tried this in Nigeria in 1977 and planes kept running into the Cable.