My first-grade classmate was dumfounded. “What do you mean you don’t have cable?” he asked me.
“I mean we don’t have cable." I didn’t understand how he didn’t understand.
“But how do you watch Nickelodeon?” He looked at me as if he was concerned for my health.
“So you just play video games when you get home from school?”
“I don’t have any video games.”
“YOU DON’T HAVE ANY VIDEO GAMES?!”
The whole class turned and stared. Mrs. Moore looked at over the top of her glasses. I thought I’d committed some sort of blasphemy.
The way my classmate assumed that I had cable and video games is the same way that most Americans view the internet. But the truth is that two out of three people don’t have access to the Internet. For Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, this is a huge problem.
So they decided to do something about it.
Like a hair-brained scheme out of a Pinky and the Brain episode, Google has decide to give everyone in the world the internet by using technology found at third-grade birthday parties: balloons.
They call the concept “Project Loon.”
The idea is that they can attach a device to a balloon that will broadcast the Internet down to the masses. They then send these balloons up to the stratosphere. Literally. Just over twelve miles above the earth’s crust is the final destination for these guys.
Each of these balloons has a radio that receives Internet signal. The balloon then shoots this radio signal back out to antenna receptors on the ground. Sounds fairly simple in concept until you start thinking about the fact that YOU'RE BROADCASTING THE INTERNET FROM A BALLOON! Here are just a few problems: how do you keep the balloons from floating off to visit Greenland, how to get a good signal from an object that is continuously rotating, and how, pray tell, are you going to keep that balloon from popping like a zit? Those are just a few of the thousands of practical issues they are facing by trying to get the Internet from a piece of inflated rubber in the stratosphere.
But it’s Google. They figured it out.
The Problems (and the Solutions)
The biggest problem the team faced was controlling the balloons. I would have just put 100 guys in little picnic baskets and wished them the best of luck, but apparently the sub-freezing temperatures and lack of oxygen in the stratosphere drove the occupational insurance costs up.
However, the guys at Google are smarter and less flippant than me. They made small motors that are powered by solar energy and attached them to the balloons. What’s even better is that those motors don’t actually propel the balloons. The balloons use the jet stream to move around the earth. That makes for another fun challenge because, as Jesus told Nicodemus, “The wind…I totally made that to mess with you.” However, these little motors as well as the ability to inflate and deflate the balloons remotely allow the navigators to keep the balloons (mostly) where the need to be in the jet stream.
Another problem facing the Loon team was the fact that the balloons are rotating. It’s tough to get a steady signal from something that is spinning. Imagine if you had a TV that had rabbit ears, and you had to adjust them to get a signal. Only instead of the rabbit ears sitting on top of the stationary TV, you had to run around your house with the rabbit ears atop of your head whilst spinning (a recipe for America’s funniest home videos if there ever was one).
Again, the guys at Google proved they deserved the bazillion dollars they make by creating antennas that can send or receive the signal no matter which way the balloon is facing. The thing is called a “dual-polarized antenna.”
Here’s how it works: the signals coming from the balloons are electromagnetic. That means they are polarized. That means they travel in zig-zags, back and forth. Now imagine the signal is flying through the air, zig-zagging back and forth in a north and south manner. If that zig-zag hits an receiving antenna that is facing east and west, then the antenna cannot receive the signal. Google put two receptors in their antennas, one facing north and south, the other facing east and west. That way, no matter which way the balloon is facing, the antennas can receive the signal.
Another small challenge is that the balloons have to travel around the world. It takes about 33 days to make this happen. That means the balloons have to survive for 33 days. I’m not sure about you but the balloons I had at my birthday parties lasted about 33 minutes.
Google engineered a rubber material that can sustain the low temperatures that occur during the night and the high temperatures that occur during the day. It can also deal with the constantly inflating and deflating the balloons go through as the navigators on the ground adjust the internal pressure of the balloons in order to direct their flight.
And that’s how and why Google sent a balloon to a shepherd in Christchurch, New Zealand (check the video out here). By the end of this year their goal is to have enough balloons up and running around the 40th South Parallel that the people living in the boondocks of New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina can have uninterrupted internet access at speeds comparable to 3G. Google thinks this could be the technology that changes the world by bringing education and information to the masses that are currently without.
What do you think? Could it work? Is it worth all the effort? Are balloons the future of the world? Is the Internet the thing that will finally bring balance to the Force or will Skynet take over and destroy us all?
Bonus question: what are they going to do when we want to launch a space shuttle and the world is covered by little balloons? Solve that Google! I say that knowing they probably already have.