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July 31st, 2015

The Dream Of Global Connectivity Takes Flight With Google’s Project Loon

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Google wants us all to be connected … provided the wind is blowing in the right direction.

sri_lanka_wiki_commons

Topographic map of Sri Lanka

Project Loon, Google’s balloon-powered rural Internet access moonshot, is ready for another major test. After successful trials in New Zealand, Brazil and the United States, Sri Lanka is next on the list.

Sri Lanka’s deputy minster of economic development Harsha de Silva announced via Facebook that the country had reached a Memorandum of Understanding with Google to trial the project. The expectation is that 13 helium-filled balloons will be in place by March 2016, and de Silva said that the aim was to provide blanket Internet coverage in hard-to-reach rural areas.

“Hopefully in a few months every person and every device on the island will be covered by 3G,” said de Silva in his Facebook post. “Service providers will enter in to agreements with “floating cell towers” that will be shared bringing down transmission costs leading to further reductions in cost of service provision. This should give more space for them to improve technology, content and service.”

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Google’s Attempt To Close The Global Digital Gap

Google has been working on Project Loon since 2011, and started testing the airborne Internet network in New Zealand in 2013. The project is one of several that have come out of its Google X research facility, and could be a game-changer in terms of how less developed countries bring more citizens online.

The idea of covering the world in balloons is to bring the Internet to the approximately 66% of the world that remains unconnected. Facebook has also set its sights on global access and affordability with its Internet.org project—now in its second year—but it uses existing connections as opposed to balloons and has come in for some criticism in the past. Facebook is also testing a drone that can deliver 10 gigabit per second Internet speeds via laser.

Project Loon aside, Google has some very ambitious plans for how we use the Internet. At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this March, Google’s Sundar Pichai said that the one of the problems that the company was trying to solve was improving the connection.

See Also: Project Fi: Why Connectivity Has Always Been In Google’s DNA

“We have always tried to push the boundary of what is next,” Pichai said. “All innovations in technology happens at the intersection of hardware and software … I think it is time that we think of hardware, software and connectivity together.”

One way in which Google wants to improve the experience is by replacing existing infrastructure and increasing the speed of delivery.

Google Fiber is a project from Google to install 1 gigabit per second fiber cables in cities across the U.S. The initiative has expanded from its original testing phase in Kansas City and is now available in Provo, Utah, and Austin, Texas. Five more cities—Salt Lake City, Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham—will see Google engineers laying thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable in the near future as part of an agreed partnership with community and city leaders.

Expanding the broadband infrastructure and increasing its capabilities has become a priority for the Obama Administration, as major ISPs such as Comcast and Verizon upgrade their cable capabilities. Michael Slinger, director of Google Fiber Cities, recently testified before House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology to highlight the investment that Google was already making in selected communities.

Accelerating Connectivity Is Key To Google’s Plans

Google Fiber is certainly not the only string to Google’s connectivity bow.

Project Fi—an entirely separate entity to Fiber—will allow smartphone users to switch effortlessly between available 4G LTE networks, ensuring that connectivity is constantly maintained. Google has partnered with Sprint and T-Mobile to develop the technology. Google will operate as a Mobile Virtual Network Operator—MVNO—where it leases capacity from the carriers and sells it to users on a pay-by-use basis. Project Fi is currently in a closed beta and users need to apply to Google for access.

Finally, we have Project Wing, Google’s entry into drone delivery. It may not be connectivity per se, but it does fit into Google’s evolving ethos of providing access to goods and services to everyone in the world.

Project Wing is currently in the early stages of development from Google X. Wing will focus on delivering small packages to areas that are either inaccessible or hard to reach using unmanned aircraft systems. Project Wing is an ambitious project (much like Amazon’s idea to deliver packages via Drone) but there are still numerous regulatory hurdles to overcome if drones are to become the de facto means for deliveries across the world.

Lead image: Sri Lanka from Space by NASA via Wikipedia Commons.