The cluster of balloons provide a kind of drifting Internet network in the stratosphere, moving at a snail’s pace and lasting more than 100 days in the air. As long as a balloon is within a 24-mile radius, people would be able to tap into the network, Google said. Much cheaper than satellite technology — Google would not reveal specifics — the balloons could provide service in remote regions or perhaps an area that has lost its communications because of a violent storm.
That’s why the firm picked the cities of Christchurch and Canterbury in New Zealand for its first test case. The area is largely rural, and government leaders have embraced the plan.
Google needs permission from local governments to tap public airwaves. But if the balloons drift into the wrong areas, the engineers can use GPS and other telecom technology common among weather balloons to adjust their flight.
That the balloons are aimed at the Southern Hemisphere illustrates the importance of Africa and South America to Google’s future growth, some analysts said.
“There is an enormous problem of affordability of broadband access in much of the developing world,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior associate at Global Partners Digital, a technology policy consulting group. “We have an explosion of wireless devices everywhere, even among the poorest nations, but in most instances there is limited access to the Internet.”
About two-thirds of the world’s population is not connected to the Internet. In developing nations, the portion is larger. About seven out of eight people in emerging market economies have no Internet access, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a multinational organization of communications regulators.
Balloons have been used for hundreds of years for military communications. But to make the inflatable Internet networks work, Google engineers had to overcome significant technical hurdles.
The balloons fly in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes, and engineers had to find a way to control their direction. So they came up with navigational controls that move balloons up and down to find altitudes where wind is traveling in desired directions. They also wanted to keep the balloons in clusters to ensure consistent connectivity in a given area.
All of this was done in secret for two years.
“I couldn’t even tell my parents about it, so I’m excited for them to know today,” said Cassidy, the Google project director.