Around 40 percent of the world’s population connects to the Internet, and more than three billion people are expected to be online by the end of 2014.

To help areas that don’t already have high-speed Internet access, Google created Project Loon, which provides Internet to remote areas using solar powered balloons. The Internet connection is transmitted via antennas placed on buildings and on each balloon, helping bring 3G speeds to areas that can’t get Cable or broadband connections.

Google launched a pilot test of Project Loon in New Zealand in 2013 and expanded the project across the world. If successful, Project Loon could have an enormous impact on global communication over the coming decades.

Benefiting the Education System

With Project Loon, schools that didn’t have Internet access before, like Linoca Gayoso School in Agua Fria, Brazil, now have access to online resources and enrich the learning process for students.

“It makes no sense that a student in secondary school, almost in high school, has to do what it takes to go to Campo Maior to go to a Cyber Café or climb trees to get access to the Internet,” Linoca Gayoso principal Silvana Pereira said. “I need my students to be part of the digital era. This is the only way they’re going to grow, not only as students but as human beings, with the ability to contribute knowledge to their community.”

Saving Lives in Natural Disasters

When a natural disaster strikes, communication is one of the first assets to go down and it is important to get back online to coordinate aid and citizen relocation. By enabling first responders to connect with those who can supply aid, Project Loon could mean faster and more reliable aid and recovery. This could save valuable time, money, and effort and contribute to a faster return to normalcy for the disaster-struck community.

To do this, Google may coordinate the balloons with its existing disaster relief program, Crisis Response Team. According to humanitarian blog Tech 4 Relief, Project Loon means several benefits for the affected community.

  • Internet makes it possible to post social media updates about the disaster’s impact in real time and request help.
  • NGOs can communicate directly with head office to coordinate aid for response efforts.
  • Peer-to-peer networks, such as Jointly or Airbnb, could enable individuals to self-identify resources to meet their recovery needs.
  • Affected community can contact loved ones.
  • Mobile phone users can receive push notifications of affected areas to avoid.
  • Survivors can “tag” destroyed buildings, facilities, and power lines on crowd-sourced maps to aid responding governments and NGOs.

Project Loon for Profit

In addition to supplying Internet to rural and remote areas, Google found ways to turn a profit from these efforts. As a secondary goal, partnering with major Internet carriers means that Project Loon could fill in the gaps to extend the roaming ranges of these carriers. Google and the recipients of Project Loon’s Internet access, whether they need or want it for business purposes, all win.

Project Loon’s Naysayers

Not everyone is thrilled about Project Loon. Bill Gates doubts the project is a good idea for developing nations and whether or not it could solve problems for certain areas, particularly low-income, third-world countries. He says Internet access could help healthcare providers and schools, but thinks the average person is more concerned with treating fatal diseases than gaining Internet access. According to Gates, that is what a giant company like Google should focus its philanthropic efforts on instead.

Also, should certain countries become dependent on Internet access from Project Loon, this could have an effect on tactics during wartime. Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York pointed out that an unstable government may want to wreak havoc on the world’s communication infrastructure and can do so by shooting down Project Loon balloons.

Google Working Together with World Governments

Google contends with the politics of serving these populations with Internet access via balloons that coast from continent to continent. The project intends to serve the entire world with the same balloons, essentially making Google a global Internet service provider regulated by national governments.

Google has to convince government regulators from all different countries to agree on either a unified radio band or to ride over an existing band, like the unlicensed airwaves Wi-Fi uses. Each government will likely want their own say as to how Google offers Internet access, what the company can charge, and whom Google can connect.

Getting all of these countries to agree will be a complicated task. But is necessary to find common ground among world leaders so Project Loon can have a maximum impact for all countries, particularly those that need it most. Smaller countries that need the global communication system to thrive may be left without it if everyone can’t agree.

In the next few years or decades, the spectrum of Internet access might be very different from its range today, and soon enough, the entire globe may be connected to the Web, in part thanks to efforts like Google’s Project Loon.

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Featured Image: Google