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It's so loony, it might work
June 14, 2013 9:08 PM   Subscribe

Project Loon: Google is testing an Internet access system mediated by stratospheric balloons. They are starting in New Zealand with 30 balloons.
posted by grouse (59 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Those will make great NSA spy platforms!
posted by delmoi at 9:17 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Let a thousand of these things lose over Syria, North Korea and Turkey, NOW! Keep the NSA in the loop as to conditions on the ground and let the people use the internet to look at porn and cat videos, just like the rest of us.

Seriously though, if this worked I'd love to see what transformative effects it'd have.
posted by Keith Talent at 9:17 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I had a similar idea once, although my idea was to have solar powered airships with thrusters to maintain geosynchronocity.

I guess I should have patented it but I have no idea how and I figured somebody else had probably thought of it anyway.
posted by Avenger at 9:18 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Something something NSA something Big Brother something something blimps!
posted by mr_roboto at 9:20 PM on June 14, 2013


When I saw this I had to double-check the date on my computer to make sure it wasn't really April 1.

I wonder what the telecom rules are like in New Zealand and if that had something to do with Google's decision to launch (heh) this product there. Many an American electronics product has been exposed early by a required public filing with the Federal Communications Commission.
posted by grouse at 9:22 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The real question is, can you blog from these balloons?
posted by Cash4Lead at 9:25 PM on June 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh hey this is being tested in my city! There's an open day tomorrow, time to go have a look.
posted by xiw at 9:29 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The balloons will live in the stratosphere, continually circling the Earth. Will any countries' laws apply to them?

It sounds like a really cool idea. And if they had sensors and cameras attached you could probably do atmospheric and climate science with them, in addition to broadcasting the Internet.
posted by Kevin Street at 9:37 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Over time, we’d like to set up pilots in countries at the same latitude as New Zealand.

If you're wondering like I was, the same latitudes as NZ (34°S-47°S) are:
- The southern part of eastern Australia, roughly Adelaide to Sydney and south through Tasmania.
- A broad section of Chile and Argentina, north as far as Buenos Aires and almost to Santiago; south to include Puerto Montt and Comodoro Rivadavia. (Also includes Montevideo, Uruguay)
- The very southern tip of S. Africa; Cape Town and Port Elizabeth
- That's about it. Basically none of the south Pacific or Atlantic islands.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:38 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder what the telecom rules are like in New Zealand and if that had something to do with Google's decision to launch (heh) this product there.

It's not a product yet; this is just an early pilot program by Google. They probably have years of development yet to come, if this works out.

Superpressure balloons don't have a long effective life - I imagine that the extra UV would play havoc with the plastics used for the envelope. They'll probably need to be replaced every few months or so. That cost would add up.

I wonder how much lateral control they have, relying on stratospheric winds? Like, can the balloons measure wind direction and speeds at different layers of the stratosphere, and compensate? Is that fully automated?

Cool stuff. We're living in the future.

Those will make great NSA spy platforms!

No more than any mobile phone tower or any other kind of internet access. But please don't make this about the NSA's bullshit. This is cool and interesting and worthy of discussion in its own right.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:40 PM on June 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


The balloons will live in the stratosphere, continually circling the Earth. Will any countries' laws apply to them?

The stratosphere above a country is still part of that country's airspace. This is a bit murky, but generally speaking, aviation regulation covers that part of the airspace that can be used by aircraft. So essentially, yes, they will be subject to national regulation.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:42 PM on June 14, 2013


I wonder if this is how they'll bring internet access to sub-Saharan Africa.
posted by clockzero at 9:44 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I believe many urban parts of sub-Saharan Africa have at least 3G internet access. "Africa" is a bit of a red herring, since last-mile broadband access is an issue in "developed" countries like Canada that, like Africa, have large, sparsely populated rural hinterlands.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:47 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


But only when the balloons are over that country? Google wouldn't break the law, but I'm imagining some future Kim Dotcom running illegal services through his own balloon fleet. Or Google balloons being used to circumvent China's "great firewall."
posted by Kevin Street at 9:48 PM on June 14, 2013


There's a few things I'd be interested to learn, namely:

Connection standards? WiMax maybe?

Power: They mention solar but obviously you want connectivity at night, which presumably means batteries. What kind of batteries would they use? How heavy? How many?

Radiation: solar flares and other incidental radiation could potentially wreak havoc for onboard electronics. What plans do they have to harden balloon circuitry?

It's all so interesting. I'd be genuinely fascinated by what kind of answers they cooked up.
posted by Avenger at 9:48 PM on June 14, 2013


But only when the balloons are over that country?

Actually, maybe not even then. I may be wrong about the stratosphere being controlled airspace, according to this article which claims otherwise.

The balloons may only be covered by local laws as they travel up through controlled airspace to get to the stratosphere, or back down again.

But I still can't figure out when controlled airspace ends. Perhaps a pilot MeFite could help?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:10 PM on June 14, 2013


If this were a German project, there'd be 99 balloons, right?
'80s music joke
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:19 PM on June 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Problems I see:Cool idea, though. Balloons are definitely fun.
posted by jiawen at 10:23 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the FAQ:

We’ve designed the balloons to be able to stay in the air for 100+ days at a time. ... The laws applicable to high altitude balloon flight and telecommunications services differ from country to country, and we will comply with all applicable laws as required. ... We’re working to guide all balloons to collection points upon descent, so we can reuse, recycle, or dispose of the parts responsibly ... Q: Will the balloons have cameras or capture any imagery of the ground? A: No.
posted by teraflop at 10:25 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


So you know how alternate universes always seem to have zeppelins. For some reason, this feels like the start.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:28 PM on June 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


Thanks, teraflop
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:36 PM on June 14, 2013


Google to bankroll, build wireless networks across Africa

To reach its goal, Google, which benefits the more people have access to its search and other Internet services, is lobbying regulators to use airwaves reserved for television broadcasts, which at lower frequencies can pass through buildings and over longer distances, the WSJ reported.

It is also working on providing low-cost cellphones and employing balloons or blimps to transmit signals over hundreds of square miles from high altitudes.

The company has already begun several small-scale trials, including in Cape Town, South Africa, where it is using a base station in conjunction with wireless access boxes to broadcast signals over several miles, the newspaper reported.

posted by infini at 10:59 PM on June 14, 2013


So what? The Opal Darknet has been running a Gbit/s balloon stratnet for three years now.

Oh shit, I wasn't supp
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:14 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I had a similar idea once, although my idea was to have solar powered airships with thrusters to maintain geosynchronocity.

Company tests robotic blimp for wireless communications (2006, mind you)

There's also the NASA Pathfinder originally developed by the Gossamer Condor folks, which has evolved into a UAV prototype of sorts, including the Global Observer. And actually, you would see essentially the same concept every five or six years in Popular Mechanics, because it didn't take a lot of ingenuity to imagine an aircraft as a repeater or whatnot.
posted by dhartung at 11:26 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


They are starting in New Zealand with 30 balloons.

Eventually they hope to have 99 balloons.
posted by homunculus at 11:28 PM on June 14, 2013


No more than any mobile phone tower or any other kind of internet access. But please don't make this about the NSA's bullshit. This is cool and interesting and worthy of discussion in its own right.
You can't put ultrahigh resolution cameras on cell towers. I mean, you could, but you wouldn't be able to see very much.
posted by delmoi at 11:37 PM on June 14, 2013


I've been saying, "Zeppelins."

No really, check my posting history.
posted by notyou at 11:37 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


You can't put ultrahigh resolution cameras on cell towers. I mean, you could, but you wouldn't be able to see very much.

There are no cameras on the balloons.


Anyway, the NSA doesn't need Google for that. They have DARPA.

This isn't about surveillance. It's about delivering internet access, including to remote regions and developing countries.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 12:42 AM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just so you guys know, Internet access in NZ sucks. Like big time. Back when I was in the states in 2009, it cost like $40USD for cable modem...unlimited.

Here in NZ, I am paying $100NZD (a little over $80USD) for 60GB. And wait till you hear about how full time grad students are only allowed like 3-5GB/ month.

So yeah...consumers are looking for ANYTHiNG that would free us from this stranglehold the telecom monopolies colluding together have. Better sign off, gotta save my bandwidth for tomorrow, otherwise they will switch me over to 56k modem speed (not a joke).
posted by hal_c_on at 1:06 AM on June 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Internet via balloons was a significant plot point in Spin, 2006's Hugo-winning novel.
posted by jscalzi at 2:19 AM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Actually, barring all the jokes one can make about clouds, this is interesting from a resource consumption point-of-view as well, expanding access while reducing the amount of resources needed to implement it. Privacy concerns aside I'm guess the real issue here is reliability and redundancy. Open sourcing the end-solution and making it an open platform could perhaps alleviate some of the issues/concerns?
posted by Ravneson at 2:25 AM on June 15, 2013


So the plot twist will be taht Trantor is actually under our feet all along?
posted by infini at 2:28 AM on June 15, 2013


Google is megarich. They could launch lawsuits against telecom/cable company monopolies.
posted by DU at 3:29 AM on June 15, 2013


hal_c_on thx, that was totally the missing part of the story for me. When I saw where they were launching the program, my first thought was "why there, I thought christchurch would have great internet". Cool that they are doing this for cost lowering reasons rather than last mile reasons (although it is probably more of the latter than the former).
posted by jonbro at 3:39 AM on June 15, 2013


Correction - terrible '80s music joke
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 4:52 AM on June 15, 2013


@Avenger "I should have patented it but I figured somebody else had probably thought of it anyway."

Why should that stop anyone? First to file, first to file. Next time you see something cool on the Net from a non-corporation just patent it anyway. That's the law. /s
posted by EnterTheStory at 5:45 AM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


How on Earth (geddit?) is anyone supposed to be able to see, let alone read, Google Ads 20km in the sky?
posted by kcds at 6:05 AM on June 15, 2013


Here in NZ, I am paying $100NZD (a little over $80USD) for 60GB. And wait till you hear about how full time grad students are only allowed like 3-5GB/ month.

Dude who are you with? When I lived in Auckland I was paying more like NZ$40 per month for a 50gig limit and whatever the fastest connection was. Despite being a full time grad student the entire time. To start with the connection was terrible because we were on the outer limits of the notorious Pt Chev exchange, but then cabinetisation rolled through and it was all good. It's been two years since I left NZ but I find it difficult to believe that prices have gone up (and I pay €60 per month here in Ireland).

"why there, I thought christchurch would have great internet"

Parts of Christchurch actually really really do. My parents have fibre optic cable laid right to their door, they pay less than I did in Auckland, and, last time I was there at least, their connection is blistering. I don't know what the download cap is but it's not something they've ever had issues with and they do use the connection quite a lot (dropbox backups, steaming video, probably not bittorrent). Almost makes living in Christchurch seem attractive.
posted by shelleycat at 6:28 AM on June 15, 2013


The balloons will live in the stratosphere, continually circling the Earth. Will any countries' laws apply to them?


And the next question is "can you balance a huge, Beaux Arts city full of racists on them?"
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:38 AM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just so you guys know, Internet access in NZ sucks. Like big time. Back when I was in the states in 2009, it cost like $40USD for cable modem...unlimited.

Here in NZ, I am paying $100NZD (a little over $80USD) for 60GB. And wait till you hear about how full time grad students are only allowed like 3-5GB/ month.

So yeah...consumers are looking for ANYTHiNG that would free us from this stranglehold the telecom monopolies colluding together have. Better sign off, gotta save my bandwidth for tomorrow, otherwise they will switch me over to 56k modem speed (not a joke).


I thought that internet access was expensive and capped in Australia and New Zealand because of the cost of the undersea cables?
posted by atrazine at 6:42 AM on June 15, 2013


There is no way to talk about Google while avoiding "NSA bullshit." Google has become synonymous with loss of privacy. I don't want them in the sky. They sky belongs to everyone. How long can it be before we see Adwords for Sunsets?
posted by spitbull at 6:45 AM on June 15, 2013


I thought this sounded great until I noticed that you a special antenna in order to use the Internet from these balloons. Given that the tag line was about bringing the Internet to rural and remote areas, or areas after a disaster, I'm not sure how convenient it is to require people to buy a special google antenna.

Also confused by the balloons traveling around, does this mean the service will only provide Internet for a couple of hours each day to a location, while it happens to float overhead?
posted by Joh at 7:13 AM on June 15, 2013


The sky belongs to everyone.

And presumably they didn't call it Project Loon for nothing. This seems like a very long shot, both because of the complexity of airspace rules in the northern hemisphere, and because of the expense of maintaining a balloon fleet like this. Maybe they're just doing it for fun?
posted by sneebler at 7:22 AM on June 15, 2013


So you know how alternate universes always seem to have zeppelins. For some reason, this feels like the start.

If the investment in lighter-than-air flight means I can one day make an Atlantic crossing in a zeppelin, I am prepared to abandon any concerns I might have about Google's ability to gather data about me not just from my internet history, but from the spy-cameras that will inevitably be discovered in each of these balloons. Zeppelins are the price of my soul, no more, no less.
posted by howfar at 7:36 AM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Correction - terrible '80s music joke
posted by Mario Speedwagon


Eponymous comment?
posted by 445supermag at 8:06 AM on June 15, 2013


I'm guessing this is just a trial balloon.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:16 AM on June 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm curious what the coverage radius is on one of these. Certain nations will not want these balloons over their country, but if the coverage is good enough, you can float one just outside the border and there ya go.
posted by azpenguin at 9:21 AM on June 15, 2013


How much of this is publicity stunt, and how much real techno-experimentation? I mean, here we are talking about Google again...
posted by sneebler at 9:44 AM on June 15, 2013


This isn't about surveillance.

The Google maps cars already do a better job of that, anyway.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:18 AM on June 15, 2013


Joh: I thought this sounded great until I noticed that you a special antenna in order to use the Internet from these balloons.

From the FAQ, the balloons are flying "around 18-27 km or 60,000 - 90,000 feet." That's a bit far for wifi to handle, so yes, custom hardware is needed. Maybe it's WiMAX, but I don't know if it can support the stated speeds from those distances.
posted by Pronoiac at 10:21 AM on June 15, 2013


There are no cameras on the balloons.
Well, that's what they say. Do you think if they were going to put classified spy cameras on them they would mention it in their FAQ?
Anyway, the NSA doesn't need Google for that. They have DARPA.
Sure, except is a foreign country going to let "DARPA" put balloons in their airspace? But, they might be comfortable letting Google do it.
This isn't about surveillance. It's about delivering internet access,
Well again, that's what they say.

Anyway, I mostly joking, I assume they need to keep the weight on these things as low as possible. But, the fact is google lost a lot of the trust they had built up over the years by being involved in PRISM. They are going to have to deal with it.
posted by delmoi at 10:22 AM on June 15, 2013


Why would the US want ultrahigh resolution photos of New Zealand for god's sake? And don't say "it's to test out the technology." I mean, seriously, how much "testing" does a-camera-on-a-balloon need?
posted by yoink at 12:05 PM on June 15, 2013


Pronoiac, yes I can see the technical difficulties that would require a special antenna, but I'm just disappointed that the end user result means someone has to find and pay for a special antenna, and have a safe place to mount it, and is now tethered to that place. I'm just disappointed that it doesn't quite live up to my personal fantasy of bring free internet to anyone, anywhere. Honestly, I'm not sure how this is any better than satellite internet, other than, I guess cheaper to provide.
posted by Joh at 1:03 PM on June 15, 2013


Anyway, I mostly joking, I assume they need to keep the weight on these things as low as possible. But, the fact is google lost a lot of the trust they had built up over the years by being involved in PRISM. They are going to have to deal with it.

I don't think they really lost trust over it; they followed court orders, it's not like they had a choice. PRISM is the fault of congress, and they deserve the blame for it.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:33 PM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hey shelleycat! We met up at a metafilter meetup in 2009 or so...I had crazy mad watch skills and ID'd the watch your boy was wearing. Glad to hear yr on the emerald isles, hope yr kicking some science-ass.

First lemme correct the 'grad student' bit. I was referring to being at university...where there is a 10gb cap on uni computers (shitty speed slower than at home). Back at bumfuck Indiana in 1996, I had a t1 line to my dorm...unlimited.

And yeah...Internet prices keep going higher and higher. What sucks is how they make u choose higher plans, lest you go over and are forced to choose a penalty package which charges $5/extra GB. With Vodafone, woosh, telecom the lowest plan is $60 for 40gb...and then after that they screw you harder if u go over.

I thought that internet access was expensive and capped in Australia and New Zealand because of the cost of the undersea cables?

No. It's because of a known monopoly that businesses are having a hard time breaking into. Sure that means it may be more expensive...but not THIS expensive...and metered this harshly. It's relatively cheap to maintain, once set up.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:42 PM on June 15, 2013


> Those will make great NSA spy platforms

A friend who used to work at the NSA wrote today on Facebook that he'd proposed this in 1979, and that the DoD was interested at the time.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:05 AM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Today's xkcd is relevant.
posted by Gelatin at 7:06 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why would the US want ultrahigh resolution photos of New Zealand for god's sake?
Kim Dotcom.

Especially since he's much easier to see from the stratosphere then a normal person.
posted by delmoi at 2:43 PM on June 17, 2013


African Entrepreneurs Deflate Google’s Internet Balloon Idea
posted by infini at 2:39 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


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