Called Project Loon, the experimental program was hatched by engineers at the company’s top-secret Google X laboratory in California’s Silicon Valley that invented driverless cars and eyeglasses equipped with voice-activated computers. Some of those technologies won’t immediately — or ever — make money for the firm. Google said it pursues these “moon shot” ideas with the aim of solving big problems and creating breakthrough technologies that ultimately will bring more users to its services.
These projects also help Google extend its sprawling reach into the lives of global Internet users, amid an intensifying debate over Internet privacy. Already, the company has the leading Web search, e-mail service and Internet video site, while its Android mobile software has become the most popular in the world.
These tools have enabled Google to track a wide range of consumer behaviors, which the company sells to advertisers. In recent weeks, privacy advocates have raised concerns over how much of this data is being shared with the U.S. government.
The balloons also represent another of Google’s forays into the telecommunications business. The company has been setting up Internet connections in Kansas City, Austin and elsewhere that offer speeds 100 times faster than what most consumers have today. Google also offers free WiFi in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and a few other U.S. cities. Top executives have long complained of the slow expansion of Web connections as a bottleneck to the growth of its business.
Mike Cassidy, the director of Project Loon, said the aim is to provide much cheaper Internet connections around the world. In many African nations, for example, monthly Internet costs are higher than monthly salaries.
“We are focused on an enormous problem, and we don’t think we have the one solution today,” he said in a phone interview from New Zealand. “But we think we can help and start having a discussion on how to get 5 billion people in remote areas” connected to the Internet.
The thin plastic balloons hovering over New Zealand — measuring a few minivans in diameter and barely visible to Earth-bound spectators — use a mix of highly sophisticated and basic methods to deliver Internet connections of at least 3G cellular speeds.
The high-pressure balloons carry antennas, radios, solar-power panels and navigation equipment that talk to specialized antennas on rooftops below. But they do not have motors, and their travel largely depends on wind patterns.