Google to Test 4G Helium Balloons

High-altitude network could provide Internet access anywhere

Nov 17, 2014
Outside Magazine
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The Project Loon team conducted research balloon flights in California's Central Valley in summer of 2013.    Courtesy of Google

Tech giant Google announced on Monday that it would be testing 20 high-altitude balloons in western Queensland next month that are capable of sending and receiving 4G-like signals. Melbourne-based newspaper The Age reports that the test is part of Google’s long-term initiative to bring Internet access to remote locations around the world.

It’s the latest announcement from an initiative called Project Loon, unveiled on Google’s official blog in 2013. If it comes to fruition, balloons will eventually circle the planet at twice the altitude of passenger jets, propelled by westerly stratospheric winds, picking up 4G-like signals from Web-connected base stations and transmitting them back to consumers’ phones and homes. On the ground, Project Loon’s support in Australia comes from Telstra, the country’s largest telecommunications company, which will share space on the radio spectrum and operate the solar-powered base stations the balloons use to communicate.

In 2014, an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population is without Internet access. For many communities that would like to be better connected, underground fiber cabling is prohibitively difficult or expensive. The idea of Project Loon is to override this gap in communication by allowing low-flying satellites to deliver Internet access to pretty much anyone, anywhere. A description on Google’s blog highlights the potential for helping in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Last June, Google’s pilot attempt at airborne 4G involved helium-filled balloons over Christchurch, New Zealand. “It’s not just the far reaches of the world that don’t have the Internet,” project founder Richard DeVaul told The Age at the time. “Parts of New Zealand don’t either. This is a crazy idea. but we might be able to do it.”