Google pitches balloons to bridge digital divide

John C. Tanner
20 Jun 2013

Google says more must be done to connect the unconnected if Asia is to realize its full potential in transforming the internet as we know it - and pitched high-altitude relay balloons as a possible solution.

Karim Temsamani, president of Asia-Pacific at Google, said that in the last couple of years Asia has led the way in "rebuilding the internet", as mobile becomes the prevalent internet access device.

"In the next two years, 500 million people in emerging markets in Asia will go on the internet for the first time, and that will drive the transformation even faster, because they won't have the desktop habits that we have," Temsamani said during the Visionary Addresses yesterday at the Communic-Asia Summit.

However, he said, access remains a chief barrier to all this, as two-thirds of the planet either has no internet access or can't afford to pay for it.

Enter Google's Project Loon, unveiled earlier this week, which proposes to build a ring of balloons 20 km above the earth that will float freely in stratospheric winds and relay 3G-level data traffic over a 40-km radius.

"Think of it as an amplifier for the nation's internet rather than a separate internet," Temsamani explained. "You essentially connect these balloons to the local internet infrastructure and beam signals to them. The balloons then relay that signal to each other."

Google has already launched a pilot test of Project Loon in New Zealand with 50 testers and 30 balloons.

Temsamani said the balloons can bring affordable access to underserved areas.

"This will help rural farmers get better market information so they can get better prices from merchants. For places with few doctors, this could help relay accurate medical information. During disasters, this could really help coordinate supplies."

Temsamani admitted that Project Loon was an experiment that might not work. "If it doesn't work, okay. But this shows how imagination is needed to face the challenges we have."


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