The Promise and Peril of Universal Internet

The Google Project Loon launch event in Christchurch New Zealand.

The Google Project Loon launch event in Christchurch New Zealand. Flickr user I used a Nikon

Google’s audacious plan to provide “balloon-powered Internet for everyone” is gathering momentum. But can the tech giant be trusted?

In 1812, at Lynmouth, a village on the southern coast of England, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley spent hours gluing together strips of silk to make a hot-air balloon. He fastened a wick soaked in spirit, and then carefully attached the globe’s cargo: his radical political manifesto, A Declaration of Rights. Shelley set the wick alight and watched the fragile vessel ascend into the evening sky, until the flame became a small spark.

Inspired by the launch, Shelley wrote a poem, “To a Balloon, laden with Knowledge.” The “Bright ball of flame” may soon “Fade like a meteor in surrounding gloom,” but the radiant idea of liberty it carried would be “unquenchable,” he wrote. In the end, however, Shelley’s toy balloons were a tiny flare set against the dark ignorance of the age.

Two centuries later, in 2013, the tech giant Google launched its own balloons laden with knowledge. The idea is to build a fleet of thousands of high-altitude balloons to deliver Internet service in remote areas of the Earth. It’s a crazy undertaking, so the name “Project Loon” is appropriate.

The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have long shared Shelley’s fascination with balloons, although the tech maestros’ ambitions rise much higher.

“What if there was a way to light up the entire globe?” asks Google in a promotional video for the project. “And finally make all of the world’s information accessible to all of the world’s people?”

Is Project Loon the fulfillment of Shelley’s dream: the advancement of learning and “A ray of courage to the opprest and poor”?

Perhaps, but with some caveats. The Google balloons are basically floating cell towers, which can relay a signal to someone on the ground who has a cell phone or other device. They fly at an altitude of 18-25 kilometers—the edge of near space, or twice as high as commercial aircraft. Google aims to partner with telecommunications businesses around the world. The local firms have the customer network and the cellular spectrum; Google brings the balloons to the party. Mike Cassidy, the head of Loon, told a conference this summer that one balloon could provide connectivity to an area of 5,000 square kilometers—bigger than Rhode Island.

Naturally, Google departed from Shelley’s design. Instead of silk, the Google balloons are made of polyethylene fabric. Instead of being fired by a wick, the Loon globes are filled with helium. Instead of letting the elements decide where the balloons will fall, as Shelley did, Google uses a complex software algorithm to move them up and down and catch different strata of wind—so that at least one balloon is always over a given area, providing constant coverage. And each one, according to Google, costs “tens of thousands of dollars.”

The project’s 2013 pilot launch in New Zealand involved early hiccups, including balloons bursting after takeoff or leaking helium; at a later test, one balloon crashed into a power line. But by 2015, Google had kept a balloon afloat for 187 days.

The company launched balloons in New Zealand, which flew to Latin America, delivered an Internet connection on cue, headed to Australia, hit the target location within 500 meters, and once again provided a connection. Next year, Google plans to offer Internet coverage in large parts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Project Loon could help hundreds of millions of people access mankind’s collective knowledge. At the moment, around 60 percent of the world’s population doesn’t use the Internet. Getting the balloons aloft may prove far cheaper than building cell-phone towers or laying underground cable. Rather than stumbling across a half-burned copy of Shelley’s Declaration of Rights, farmers could learn new agricultural techniques, local merchants could sell on a global platform, and people could receive medical services online.

The service could also be invaluable in an emergency. A hurricane can knock out ground-based Internet, but it won’t defeat the Loon, which flies above the weather. As long as you have a battery-powered phone, you should still be able to connect.

Still, in the short run at least, Project Loon will aid the global middle billion rather than the bottom billion. For this venture to work, Google has to rely on a cooperative government, the existence of basic freedoms, capable local telecommunications firms, and a tech-savvy but under-served population. To benefit from the network, people need a cheap cell phone and data plan, which disqualifies many of the poorest.

Loon could be tailor-made for a state like Sri Lanka, where these pieces are mostly in place, but only 3 million out of 20 million people have Internet access. The project is also especially attractive for far-flung countries with remote territories and major physical obstacles, like Indonesia, with its 17,500-plus, often jungle-ridden and mountainous islands. The balloons may also soon be flying over the United States, judging by Google’s request for a license from the Federal Communications Commission to test experimental radios. After all, large parts of the U.S. still have zero access to data.

Many regimes won’t welcome the shadow of the Loon, however. China, for one, doesn’t want its Great Firewall being bypassed from the heavens. But it’s possible to imagine that as the technology develops, a fleet of Google balloons—or U.S. government balloons, or United Nations balloons—will one day float into politically contentious skies.

The balloons might provide data service to a failed state as part of a humanitarian endeavor. Or they could even be sent over hostile territory to offer Internet to the “opprest and poor” and destabilize an enemy regime. After all, the balloons would be tough to destroy from the ground. Regimes could try firing missiles at them, or jamming transmissions, but these capabilities are beyond many countries. A dictator’s Internet “kill switch” may not always work.

Can Google be trusted? The corporation is not going loony for fun. Let’s say Google reached 5 percent of those without Internet access, or 250 million people. If customers paid, say $5 per month, project leader Mike Cassidy told The Verge that it would amount to, “a billion dollars a month in revenue, tens of billions a year in revenue. So it’s good business, too.”

Google’s ultimate goal is balloons without borders: a free-floating network providing “balloon-powered Internet for everyone.” Will the corporation fly beyond the reach of state regulation? And will the project hand Google an effective monopoly over the Internet in developing countries? Some Indonesian telecommunications firms are already concerned about competition—although Google promises to share its profits.

A combination of craziness and capitalism has fueled many powerful innovations in history. The balloons may be steered by a global corporation rather than a Romantic poet, but the heavenly Internet could still, as Shelley once hoped, “dart like Truth where Falsehood yet has been.”

Edited image via Flickr user I Used a Nikon