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Shooting the breeze: Google talks-up Project Loon to show that it's not, well, erm… loony


via Flickr © I used a nikon (CC BY 2.0)

Google's hot air machine has been cranked into overdrive as the Cookie Monster goes on the PR offensive in an effort to convince a rather-less-than-wholly-convinced world audience that Project Loon, the company's grandiose, not to say bizarre, plan to use balloons drifting about in the stratosphere to provide wireless Internet access in remote areas and those unserved by terrestrial networks around the globe, will work and is on track.

Mike Cassidy, Google's guy in charge of the Project (and don't you dare to think of him as Head Loony) says the company is close to being able to mass produce, launch and control the tens of thousands of balloons that will be necessary to provide Internet access from the heavens. "Close to", you'll note. Google can't actually do it yet, but then a PR blitz now and again generates acres of free column inches and miles of TV reports and keeps Loon in the public eye.

The theory behind Project Loon is that LTE signals will be transmitted to various types of smart handsets down on terra firma from balloons that, they reckon, will fly high, wide and handsome far above the altitudes frequented by commercial jet airliners.

Google has released a spiffy new video in which Mike Cassidy expounds the virtues of Project Loon and explains, "At first it would take us three or four days to tape together a balloon. Today, through our own manufacturing facility, the automated systems can get a balloon produced in just a few hours. We're getting close to the point where we can roll out thousands of balloons."

Google claims that the balloons will be able to remain airborne for "up to" six months. Yes, that is the very same "up to" so beloved of ISPs who claim in their over-egged advertising that punters can get speeds of "up to" 100Mbit/s, (or whatever) when the reality is such a speed may be achievable only for half a second to one machine at twenty to four in the morning on World Sleepathon Day. The rest of the time you get what you get - and what you get is nowhere near the much-vaunted "up to" maximum.

Google has been working on Project Loon for getting on for four years now and has been testing the balloons and the technologies that dangle from them in places such as Australia, parts of Latin America and in New Zealand, having signed partnership agreements with local telcos including Telstra, Telefonica and Vodafone.

In tests Project Loon balloons have been released in both tropical and arctic areas and according to Mike Cassidy they "have been going great."

The plan is for the balloons to rise to altitudes of about 32 kilometres to create a windborne wireless network with "up to" 3G-like speeds. (Yes, it's the ubiquitous "up to" yet again).

Google claims it can control the balloons to such an extent that he they can waft easily through 200 mph jet-stream winds and then be manoeuvred into a higher atmospheric layer with the most benign and beneficial wind direction and speed. Once there they, quite literally, hang around shooting the breeze with other inflatables in the constellation.

Loon users connect to the service via a "special" exterior Internet antenna. The signal travels through the network from balloon to balloon and down to an earth station. In its turn the earth station transmits the signals to an ISP and they then go from there onto the global Internet.

Mike Cassidy says that most of the problems that beset the early days of the balloon launching system have been solved and it is now much more reliable. "In the beginning, it was all we could do to launch one balloon a day. Now with our automated crane system, we can launch dozens of balloons a day for every crane we have." However,he didn't say how many cranes there are, or where they are situated.

Like the song says, "What goes up, must come down" and several Loon balloons have already returned from whence they came, but not quite in the same place from which they were launched. Mr. Cassidy acknowledges that it is already expensive, disruptive and time-consuming to send out teams to collect downed and damaged inflatables. It will cost a great deal more when thousands of balloons, as they inevitably will, begin to obey the laws of gravity. Google says it has developed a system to predict where returnees will land but has not provided details of how it works or how successful trials of the system have been. Nor has it given details about just when any commercial Project Loon services may be rolled-out. Nonetheless, Mike Cassidy believes the business "could one day be worth US$10 billion."

Interestingly, in the new video, a spokesperson for Vodafone New Zealand says that Project Loon "allows cell phone companies and Internet companies to provide Internet to communities that don't have it." This is a telling indication that any ballon-based service are likely to be offered by telco providers rather than directly by Google itself.

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