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. Google’s initiative 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.