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Google Internet balloons ready to take off in Indonesia

Google’s ambitious initiative to provide internet for the entire world, even the most remote locales by floating giant balloons into the stratosphere is ready to take off into the next phase. ‘Project Loon’ - the futuristic project of the company’s experimental projects division Google X - is all set to take the huge leap with 20,000 helium-filled balloons ready to hover in the stratosphere above remote areas of Indonesia. Project Loon is targeting the world’s fourth most populous country because two-thirds of its citizens don’t have internet access, and for a country that is struggling so hard to get cabled or wireless infrastructure out to its extreme limits, Indonesia is the perfect fit for satellite based internet access mechanism.

The California tech giant has partnered with three Indonesian internet service providers – Telkomsel, Axiata and Inmost – for its Project Loon initiative that aims to deliver LTE connectivity to remote areas via clusters of giant high-altitude helium balloons, especially places across its 17,000 islands where fixed-line services aren’t available. It’s part of the company’s plan to help connect some of the billions of people around the world who remain offline, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters. Google believes they are on course to have enough internet-beaming balloons in the stratosphere to form a ring over part of the world by next year.

“Indonesia is the perfect fit for Project Loon,” said Mike Cassidy, project leader for Loon, speaking at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View in front of a fully inflated balloon.

“Occasionally getting out of communications range is healthy for all of us,” added Google co-founder Sergey Brin, “but if it’s part of your daily life and you don’t have access to the information and the ability to communicate with people important to you that’s a real disadvantage.”

Project Loon began with a pilot experiment in June 2013, when thirty balloons were launched in coordination with the Civil Aviation Authority from New Zealand’s South Island and beamed internet to a small group of pilot testers. About 50 local users in and around Christchurch and the Canterbury Region tested connections to the aerial network using special antennas. After the initial trial, the pilot test has since expanded to include a greater number of people over a wider area to learn what it will take to provide connectivity to everyone, anywhere, with balloons. By partnering with telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum, Project Loon has enabled people to connect to the balloon network directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices.

Google is positioning the test as a huge leap forward for Indonesia, where internet connections are often spotty or slow, thanks to challenging infrastructure and a thinly spread population of around 255 million people which makes it further more expensive to build a network using underwater cables. A dispersed nation that’s relying on satellite –delivered internet access for its limited internet connectivity could benefit hugely from cheap, widely available 10Mbps connections. People on the ground only need a mobile device to get online. But considering only 23 percent of the Indonesians use smartphones, it’s unlikely consumers have that number of devices to access the network even if the coverage is there.

The Indonesian experiment is just the latest development as Project Loon parachutes into the developing world. Google will spend the next 12 months testing the balloons with its three partners before rolling out a commercial product. If things go well as envisioned, Project Loon will deploy hundreds of balloons that serve as cell towers in the sky. The helium-filled balloons will fly in the stratosphere at altitudes between 18km and 25km. Each balloon will then provide connectivity to an area of around 40km in diameter using LTE wireless communications. The balloons will relay the traffic from the mobile devices between each other and eventually back to the global internet using high-speed links. The balloons will be coordinated and tracked via mission control to optimally position the fleet to provide the best coverage.

If all goes according to plan, the experiment should achieve one of its goals in 2016, Mike Cassidy, vice-president of Project Loon said. “We need about 300 balloons or so to make a continuous string around the world. As one moves along with the wind out of range, another one comes to take its place. We hope next year to build our first continuous ring around the world, and to have some sort of continuous coverage for certain regions. And if all goes well after, then after that we will start rolling out first beta commercial customers.”