Google’s Project Loon: Creepy, crazy, or crazy cool?

We might lament our lack of choices of high-speed internet providers, or how our wifi sometimes doesn’t work in the bathroom.  But we have the luxury of complaining – we’re among a lucky third of the world’s population that even has internet access.

That means a whopping 66% of the people on this planet can’t get online. What’s more, about 75% of the offline population is concentrated in 20 countries – and is disproportionately rural, low income, elderly, illiterate, and female.

Google wants to fix this, and has come up with an innovative solution. It’s called “Project Loon,” and its mission is to provide internet access to rural and remote areas. Not with costly towers or underground fibre cables, but with fleets of high-altitude balloons.

Google Balloon. Image via
Google Balloon. Image via

These balloons soar at an altitude of approximately 32km, well above weather and airplanes. End users access the balloons’ wireless capabilities using antennae attached to buildings. The signals travel, daisy-chain-style, balloon to balloon, to a ground station connected to an ISP. The project is currently being tested in the Southern Hemisphere, but Google hopes to eventually get the entire world online.

Is this creepy?

Conspiracy theorists love to point out how Google is slowly taking over the world

The company has its hands in almost every pie, from the obvious (online advertising, software, operating systems, maps, phones, laptops, shopping, gaming, messaging) to the less obvious (self-driving cars, robots, more robots, space exploration) to the unexpected and obscure (constitution design, the data visualization of small arms and ammunitions, a network against violent extremism).

“Google isn’t just the backbone of the Internet anymore. It’s rapidly becoming the backbone of your entire life, all thanks to data you’re voluntarily giving up to a private company based on your Web searches, photos, Gmail messages, and more.” (Steve Kovach, Business Insider)

Nothing seems more 1984-esque than being observed from the skies,  and Google’s recent acquisition of the solar-powered drone manufacturing firm Titan Aerospace is fuelling rumours that Google may be redefining the term “evil” in its unofficial slogan, “don’t be evil.”

Is this crazy?

These solar-powered balloons can only move up and down. They are at the whim of air currents, and may not be operable in storms. Not to mention the UFO-like connotations: imagine you’re a farmer in rural South Africa and you find one of these dropped in your field.

Philanthropist, rich guy and tech giant Bill Gates criticized the project for not addressing real world problems.

“When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you.” (Bloomberg)

But Google is confident that internet access will grant greater access to education, healthcare, food security, and economic developments.

Is this crazy cool?

Sure, Google may be trying to take over the world. And sure, these wifi balloons probably won’t work in a storm, but they provide a much more reliable source of internet access than what many people in developing countries have now, which is either NO access or crowding around a wifi bus when it passes through town every few days.

In any case, no one can claim Google is lacking creativity. Whether or not they’re keeping true to their motto, well, that remains to be seen.

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