Google's Project Loon stakes out no-NSA zone (we think)

Bummed out by all the NSA talk? Then lighten up with Project Loon, Google's balloon-based plan for worldwide Net access

I'm taking a break from writing about the complete and utter breakdown of our civil liberties in the face of the national surveillance state to talk about something far less depressing: balloons. More specifically, I'm talking about really big balloons filled with yummy Internet goodness, brought to you by Google.

A few days ago, while the rest of us were busy playing Where's Snowden and wondering if the NSA was playing along with us, Google was quietly unveiling a method of bringing the Internet to places where fiber optic cables and cell towers are hard to come by. Its plan: Suspend weather balloons carrying Internet broadcast gear some 12 miles above the remotest parts of the earth.

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Each balloon will have a range of 12 miles. People on the ground connect to the balloons using a special balloon-shaped antenna (naturally); the signal then bounces from balloon to balloon until it reaches the ground station for a local ISP. Google says it has developed algorithms to outsmart wind currents so that there will always enough balloons in a given area.

The name for this ambitious endeavor: Project Loon. Because what else could they possibly call it?

Loopy for Loon

Project Loon uses superthin 50-foot-wide polyethylene-film balloons built by Raven Industries, which also manufactured the balloon that took insane space jumper Felix Baumgartner 128,000 feet in the air last year. One good loon deserves another.

Google is launching its first 30 test balloons in New Zealand, home to Frodo, Bilbo, and the rest of the Hobbits. But you just know one of them is going to drift over to Australia, better known to the locals as "Oz." You can see where I'm going with this, right?

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.

I admit when I first heard about this I had to check my calendar to make sure it wasn't still April 1. When I watched the video describing how Project Loon works, part of which is narrated by a Googletonian named Astro Teller (job title: Captain of Moonshots), I checked my calendar again.

Nope, still not April 1.

Brought to you by Google X

Project Loon comes out of Google's X lab, the same one responsible for coming up with driverless cars and Google Glass. I'm still waiting for them to come up with an airline coach seat human beings can actually sit in. Then we'll start talking Nobel Prize.

In all seriousness, you have to love stuff like this, not merely for the admirable goal of bringing affordable Internet access to the nearly 5 billion fellow humans who don't yet have it, but for the sheer audacity of it. And heck, who doesn't love balloons?

Soon, people from Azerbaijian to Zimbabwe may have the pleasure of reading my blog while also being spied upon by the NSA, all made possible by the wizards at Google.

What will Google come up with next? Float your trial balloons below or email me:

This article, "Google's Project Loon stakes out no-NSA zone (we think)," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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