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Project Loon: Google's Internet balloons to fly over Sri Lanka

Google's 'Loon Project' aims to provide rural areas with Internet access through high-altitude balloons that transmit LTE signals to the ground below. 

Since launching a handful of balloons in New Zealand at our Project launch in 2013 we've flown millions of test kilometers around the world trying to learn what it will take to provide connectivity to everyone, anywhere, with balloons.

Can balloons be more than colorful party decorations? Google thinks so.

The next big test of the tech company’s Project Loon will soon begin in Sri Lanka. Google is trying to provide high-speed Internet access to rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters – all through enormous, high-altitude balloons that relay 3G and LTE signals. Its website describes the initiative as “balloon-powered internet for everyone.”

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Launched in 2013, the project is well under-way. Slate Magazine reported that the idea was first formed in the secretive Google X labs – a creative hub that has produced the Google glass, the self-driving car, and others. A pilot program was launched in New Zealand soon after Google formally introduced the project.

Mike Cassidy, leader of the Loon project, described the venture in a 2013 interview with National Public Radio.

“We launched about 30 balloons down in New Zealand, and they’re about 20 kilometers up, twice as high as commercial airplanes fly, and they can bring 3G signal from that height all the way down to the ground,” he said.

Project Loon’s website describes how the balloons connect Internet users:

“Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area around 40 km in diameter using…LTE. To use LTE, Project Loon partners with telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum so that people will be able to access the Internet everywhere directly for their phones and other LTE-enable devices. Balloons relay wireless traffic from cell phones and other devices back to the global Internet using high-speed links.”

Subsequent tests were made in California’s Central Valley and in northeast Brazil. And now, the project looks poised to expand to Sri Lanka.

According to Phys.org, the tiny island nation has officially teamed up with Google to bring high-speed Internet access to the island using balloons, aiming to become the first country in the region with complete coverage. On Tuesday, Sri Lankan officials and Google executives met in the capital city of Colombo to sign the agreement.

“The entire Sri Lankan island – every village from (southern) Dondra to (northern) Point Pedro – will be covered with affordable high speed internet using Google’s Loon’s balloon technology,” said Foreign, Communications, and IT Minister Mangala Samaraweera, as French press agency AFP reported.

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Endgadget.com explains the possible appeal.

“Sri Lanka is…ten times smaller than Texas, but has 2.8 million mobile internet and 606,000 fixed-line users. It’s a good starting point for Loon’s experimental technology, which will likely be deployed in bigger countries if this venture turns out to be a success.”

Sri Lanka is also a country known for its firsts, says Phys.org. It was the first country in South Asia to introduce mobile phones in 1989 and the first to roll out a 3G network in 2004. It was also the first in the region to unveil a 4G network two years ago.

The balloons are slated to launch in the next coming months. Once the balloons are up and running, local Internet service providers will be able to buy access to the Loon network, through which they can then connect their subscribers.  


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