Project Loon, Google’s giant balloon project now scaling up, as shown in this video, is to make the entire planet reachable by cell phone and the Internet.

Just imagine how these “floating cell phone towers” could help spur e-book use in developing countries, among other applications. TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows mentioned this back in July, when Google was rolling out Project Loon in Sri Lanka.

But what about the U.S.?

Well, it turns out that Google has filed an FCC application to allow a two-year test of some kind in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, in the wake of an experiment in the small Nevada town of Winnemucca.

The test would begin January 1. Apparently—it’s not certain to me—Google would carry on the test as part of Loon.

Let’s hope Google in time will do this full strength here in the U.S. When I Skyped to an old friend in rural Georgia, the conversation between the humans flowed smoothly. But video was blurry and often stalled. Susan Glinert Stevens is stuck with primitive DSL.

At least Susan has a Net connection of some kind. Even basic wireless phone connections can be challenges in isolated areas in the States. Consider the plight of, say, people in some Indian tribes.

Needless to say, under Project Loon, e-books could piggyback on other applications. Some speculate this is now independent of Google’s FI plan for lower-cost cell and Internet service, but who knows what might happen in the future?

At first, Google people say, the basic question was whether the balloons, bearing solar-powered radios and floating around at 60,000-90,000 feet, would work. Now, with that out of the way, the focus is on lowering costs and increasing transmission speeds. Google is partnering with local phone companies and relying on the LTE protocol, which leaves open plenty of possibilities.

While the technical potential of Project Loon intrigues me, let’s hope that the people will still pay attention to the human factors. The One Laptop per Child initiative learned the hard way that teachers needed to be trained to use OLPC laptops properly with students. Tech by itself just can’t replace good teaching. Self-directed learning can go only so far in most cases.

Similarly let’s hope that, here and abroad, Google will astutely consider the social ramifications of its technology, which it will offer in partnership with local phone companies. Digital divides aren’t just about gadgets: they’re also about how the hardware is used (or not used).

Compared to the well off, poor people typically end caring more about technology for entertainment than about its educational and research uses

Ideally one end result from Project Loon will actually be an increase in literacy for all, as opposed just to YouTube watching. I’m not saying, “No YouTube for the masses.” Rather Google should recognize the need for balance even if Hollywood-style entertainment and other kinds create more demand for bandwidth and other commercial opportunities than do e-books and the like.

A balanced approach would more likely happen if Google also partners with other organizations, notably schools and libraries. National digital library endowments, anyone—augmented by charitable efforts such as

Google could encourage the endowments’ formation both in the U.S. and abroad. It could provide planning and technological expertise and help spread around best practices, as well as pay for pilot projects in areas ranging from content to professional development for librarians and teachers. A huge gap exists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has accomplished plenty for libraries, but it is actually winding down its Global Libraries program, which has received just a smidgen of the foundation’s money despite all the talk years ago that Gates would be a veritable Carnegie II.

Although social reasons exist for Google to promote national digital library endowments, pragmatic ones abound as well.

Countries are more likely to cooperate on matters such as spectrum usage, for instance, if Google cares sufficiently about educational and cultural applications. What’s more, the commercial side of Google in some cases could serve as a contractor for various digital library projects. These e-libraries could not just loan out books but also link to a variety of e-book and p-book stores (especially local ones), including Google Play Books, to encourage book ownership.

Detail: Google isn’t the only tech company with large-scale plans to bring Net access to remote areas. Facebook has undertaken its own efforts. The downside is that many say they are not sufficiently respectful of net neutrality and would favor Facebook’s own services.


  1. Project Loon is well-named. It’s looney. Doesn’t anyone at Google know that balloons drift with the wind? They’ll divert into specific trade winds, ignoring regions not covered by them.. They’ll fly over certain regions in a 200 mph jet stream. They’ll get caught in doldrums in mid-ocean where no one lives. You might as well depend on the tooth fairy.

    Yes, those who go long distances with balloons do manage to navigate—sorta. But they do so by moving upward or downward to catch the right currents. Any scheme that does that drastically limits how long a balloon can stay up to a week or so. Then it would come down who knows where.

    There’s a far more practical solution that relies on the distinction between places with extensive populations who’ll get coverage as a matter of course and more desolate areas that won’t attract the necessary infrastructure. In cities, spectrum is scarce, and must be carefully appropriated. In rural areas in the U.S., must less in the third-world, spectrum is abundant. Use that spectrum to provide links to local towers. What has to go over cables in big cities can go over the air in rural areas. Schemes to use white space in the U.S, meaning unused digital TV channels, depend on the same idea. That’d bring them an always there connection. They wouldn’t waste time checking to see if one of those rare balloons happened to be overhead.

    People in today’s high-tech seem to be geographically illiterate. You’ll see that when you try to find an actual address on many websites. They have no grasp of just how big the world is, even in the footprint under a balloon at 90,000 feet. And in that world, drifting balloons will spend some two-thirds of their time over almost unpopulated oceans. Launch a thousand balloons, and only a little over 300 will be useful at any one time. And if you toss in that perhaps half of those will be over areas that already have Internet coverage, that’s only 15% of them useful at any one time.


    Quite frankly, I don’t get all that sentimental when I hear of these schemes. Most of my life was spent before the Internet, so I’ll let you in on a little secret. Life then was quite fine. We read paper media. We talked. We enjoyed life. We didn’t see ourselves as blighted. In fact, there are a host of indications that growing up back then beat growing up today. And both literacy, the ability to read, and fluency, the ability to communicate, were often far higher in long-ago times that had none of our modern technology. What technology often brings are distractions. Rather than read good books, kids play games about killing pigs or send semiliterate texts with little pictures. That’s not progress.

    Nor do I think societies bereft of the Internet are doomed. Years ago, I spent several months on a small Caribbean island. It had no radio stations and only the south end of the island got snowy TV pictures from a larger island about forty miles away. No one suffered from that lack of connection. No one’s life was dead-ended. They had friends. They made their own entertainment. One place I lived was next to a building where a steel-pan band practiced every night. It was marvelous. Would you rather they sat around glassy-eyed and listened to some far-away band on their smartphones?

    The island actually had a good school system left behind by British colonialism and not yet wrecked by homegrown, crooked politicians. A Chinese doctor I met didn’t have any problem with the education his smart kids were getting in the local schools. He’d have had far more cause to worry in Los Angeles. On that island, the schools may not have had many books and those books may have been worn and tattered. But they were the classic good books about the human condition to read not the latest fads from ed-school, ga-gah land.

    And one place I lived was next door to the ruins of a concrete building almost destroyed by a hurricane. A talented young woman had gotten permission from the owner to set up a school inside the bare concrete walls and roof that remained. With nothing but bare concrete walls and a blackboard she was doing a better job of teaching than our schools, with their pricey gadgetry and unionized indifference.


    There’s also an enormous hubris in the idea that people in other countries absolutely must being able to do Google searches, so they can read and watch what our culture is saying. A lot of places would be better off not learning all our follies. For instance, compare The City of Joy, about life among India’s poorest people, with endless news about the self-obsessed idiocies of our super-rich celebrities.

    Will putting people in touch with the latter make their lives better? Not at all. Indeed, a good measure of the quality of someone’s life is how little they know about the Kardashians. These people have friends. They have family. They have neighbors. They don’t need to hear about our Western culture’s rich trash.

    So before we rush to bring the Internet to parts of the world that don’t yet have it, we need to ask ourselves if the bad outweighs the good.

    Add to that the fact that the primary import that an Internet would bring into North and Central Africa and the more isolated parts of SE Asia is radical Islam. Being connected to the world means being connected to the bad as well as the good.

    –Michael W. Perry

  2. Project Loon actually leverages those trade winds, because they blow in different directions at different altitudes. Google simply raises or lowers the balloon until it’s in a band of wind blowing the right direction for it. It can’t keep in the same place forever, but I gather they’ve managed to keep them in the air and useful for weeks on end. They’re apparently cheap enough that they can easily keep dozens or hundreds of them up at once.

    Anyway, if they hadn’t been successful in all the other places they’d been tested, Google wouldn’t have decided to try them in the USA next.

    It’s funny how technologically backward the USA is in some ways for a first-world country. Our broadband speeds are among the worst–especially in rural areas, where phone and cable companies simply don’t find it economical to extend their infrastructure so people like my parents end up with crawling Internet that barely even deserves to be called “broadband.”

    If these balloons can bring fast Internet to the third world, they can bring it to the first world, too.

  3. @Michael: Thanks for your thoughtful comments, but, technologically, the odds are on Google’s side, as I myself see it. See this Slate article addressing the navigation issue. “‘Steering’ involves projecting the wind speeds and directions at different altitudes, and maneuvering the balloons up and down in hopes of catching a succession of currents that will approximate the path you’re aiming for.” What’s more, Google has significantly driven down the costs of launching the balloons, and the more, the merrier in terms of uninterrupted Net service.

    As for the cultural risks, I couldn’t agree with you more. Google really, really needs to work toward national digital library endowments and other measures not only in regard to development of local content, but also in regard to teachers and librarians’ professional development and other issues. I appreciated your mention of radical Islam. All the more reason for Google and local government to worry about these content issues. This can happen by expanding the range of enticing choices, as opposed to censorship. Also, improved schools and libraries can upgrade people’s skills so they are less vulnerable to tech-driven changes and actually can earn a living without leaving home and becoming more vulnerable to terrorist propaganda. If nothing else, moreover, think of the expanded commercial opportunities and potential improvements in areas such as health. Simply put, if Google and local governments look ahead and care about the ramifications of its technology, the world will be better off.


    Addendum: Just saw Chris’s note. Glad to see him covering the same territory in regard to the wind-related challenges. As he’s noted, Google wouldn’t scale up if it lacked solutions.

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