Google’s loony moonshots

Google's pilot program to offer internet access through a network of balloons isn't as crazy as it sounds. In fact it's another example of how combining out-of-the-box thinking with a big budget can lead to interesting innovation.

Last weekend’s big reveal of Google’s Project Loon is as much an interesting study of out-of-the-box thinking as it is about getting internet access to remote and poor parts of the world.

Project Loon is a pilot program by Google to see if it’s possible to offer internet access without investing in expensive land-based networks or satellite systems. The idea is to build a network of balloons 20km in the stratosphere to beam a 3G signal down to remote areas or regions that are too poor to afford traditional communications services.

For those remote or poor locations, the balloons may give communities access to data networks for the first time. The aerial links may also overcome the problems of rolling out communications systems in rugged or harsh terrain.

The technology is not simple though; the pilot program being undertaken in Canterbury, New Zealand has twenty balloons in the air at any one time and the technology involved in keeping the balloons properly spaced is still in its infacy.

In an Australian context, the natural question is does this method provide another alternative to the National Broadband Network’s fibre and wireless rollouts?

NBNCo has no intention of looking at alternative options with a spokesperson saying they are following Google’s project with interest but are committed to building their satellite and fixed wireless broadband networks.

For NBNCo, they are in a difficult place with considering alternative technologies; their mandate is to roll out a mix of fibre, fixed broadband and satellite networks. The politically charged atmosphere around the project coupled with modern Australia’s generally conservative attitude towards innovation would invite ridicule had Mike Quigley or Senator Conroy proposed such a project.

There may be some Australian applications for something like Google Loon; in providing mobile phone coverage in remote locations such as the outback, Antarctic Territory or the Southern Ocean along with areas where the terrain makes it difficult to install cables or line-of-sight wireless access.

All this assumes that Google Loon will be a success – it may well turn out that satellite technologies end up being cheaper and easier to use than controlling a complex network of balloons.

Who knows? It may turn out that firing microwave beams at silver painted zeppelins is more effective, but you’re not going to know unless you experiment with the technology.

The Google Loon project is a ‘moonshot’ in the language of the internet giant – something between an audacious project and pure science fiction.

Google’s definition of a moonshot is a project that aims to improve something by a factor of ten rather than an incremental 10 per cent improvement. If successful, the benefits are great but the chances of failure are high.

Like the original moonshot, the lessons learned and technologies developed end up being used in other products. The electronics developed for the 1960s US space program are the direct ancestors of the computers, smartphones and tablets that you’re reading this story on now.

While Google Loon is a fascinating project, the really interesting aspect with schemes like this is how new technologies are enabling out-of-the-box thinking. Even without Google or US Apollo program sized budgets it’s possible to look at how things can be done better with the new technologies we have.