Google is launching Internet-beaming antennas into the stratosphere aboard giant, jellyfish-shaped balloons with the lofty goal of getting the entire planet online.

Eighteen months in the works, the top-secret project was announced today in New Zealand, where up to 50 volunteer households are already beginning to receive the Internet briefly on their home computers via translucent helium balloons that sail by on the wind 12 miles above Earth.

While the project is still in the very early testing stages, Google hopes eventually to launch thousands of the thin, polyethylene-film inflatables and bring the Internet to some of the more remote parts of the globe, narrowing the digital divide between the 2.2 billion people who are online and the 4.8 billion who aren’t.

If successful, the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of installing fibre-optic cable, dramatically increasing Internet usage in places such as Africa and Southeast Asia.

“It’s a huge moonshot, a really big goal to go after,” said project leader Mike Cassidy. “The power of the Internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time.”

The so-called Project Loon was developed in the clandestine Google X lab that also came up with a driverless car and Google’s Web-surfing eyeglasses.

Google would not say how much it is investing in the project or how much customers will be charged when it is up and running.

The first person to get Google Balloon Internet access this week was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in the small town of Leeston who signed up for the experiment.

Technicians attached a bright red, basketball-size receiver resembling a giant Google map pin to the outside of his home.

In a successful preliminary test, Nimmo received the Internet for about 15 minutes before the 49-foot-wide transmitting balloon he was relying on floated out of range.

The first thing he did was check the weather forecast because he wanted to find out if it was a good time for “crutching” his sheep, or removing the wool around their rear ends.

Nimmo is among the many rural folk, even in developed countries, who can’t get broadband access. After ditching his dial-up four years ago in favour of satellite Internet service, he has got stuck with bills that sometimes exceed $1,000 a month.

“It’s been weird,” Nimmo said of the Google Balloon Internet experience. “But it’s been exciting to be part of something new.” In recent years, military and aeronautical researchers have used tethered balloons to beam Internet signals back to bases on Earth. Google’s balloons would be untethered and out of sight, strung out in a line around the globe.

(This article was published on June 15, 2013)
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