The internet has revolutionized business, education, communication and recreation across the Western world. It has profoundly influenced our democracy, our culture, and our way of life. But we’d be making a mistake if we believed that it has changed the world. It hasn’t. Not all of it.
As I’ve written about before, 38% of the world has internet access, but it’s only 12% in Africa. Broadband access costs more than the average wage, and is out of reach for most ordinary people.
One of the main problems is that the internet needs infrastructure. That’s taken for granted here in Britain, but it’s very expensive. To connect the continents to each other, someone has to stump up the cost of high capacity undersea cables or satellites. High speed undersea cables reached Africa relatively recently, and connecting everything inland is another challenge.
Google think they may have a solution. Instead of cable or expensive satellite broadband, they are experimenting with balloons. Their ‘project loon‘ is piloting in New Zealand at the moment, and involves a network of weather balloons. With a special antenna, participating households can access the internet as a balloon floats overhead. The balloon receives the signal, transmits it from balloon to balloon until it reaches the terrestrial internet again.
The balloons are above commercial airspace, and use solar panels to run their systems. Google admit that it’s a pretty outrageous project, but that it might be part of the solution for the two thirds of the world’s people who don’t have the internet. Since the balloons only stay in the air for so long, around 100 days or so, it’s more likely that they would be used as a temporary measure to get internet access up and running in a disaster area. Still, an interesting project. There’s more about it at the New Scientist.
Another innovation worth keeping an eye on is Google’s experimentation with air-borne wind turbines, but they’re not saying much about that at the moment.