Coming to a classroom near you ... Google's Project Loon - 3G access balloons

26th July 2013 at 01:00

The internet may sometimes seem inescapable but it is estimated that only about a third of the world's population has access to it.

Yet we should not worry: Google is attempting to fill the gap with the interestingly titled Project Loon. This involves floating balloons about 20km above the Earth, where each one will provide internet connection to a circular area of 1,250km2 via antennae.

Getting these balloons into position involves complex charting of winds, while the kit is powered via solar panels. The connection speed, Google says, would be comparable with 3G.

Whether Project Loon is driven by the potential for untapped revenue or more altruistic reasons is not clear. But the search engine giant is deadly serious.

Testing began in New Zealand in June, with 30 balloons sent up from the South Island to be given a trial run by volunteer "test pilots" who had previously been living in a net-free zone.

The choice of venue for the testing shows that internet connectivity issues are not purely a Third World problem. The cost of the infrastructure to bring the internet to remote areas is often too high to be viable, either for the company providing it or for the few users in the region who would have to pay to access it.

And schools are among the sufferers in these internet blackspots. With the internet now a key teaching tool, a lack of connection can be a real disability for teachers and students alike. It's an issue the Welsh government is trying to tackle with a pound;39 million fund to improve schools' internet connectivity. In addition, a review was started in April of internet connectivity in Guernsey colleges and schools, after concerns were raised about the current inadequate service.

Project Loon could be a cost-effective answer to these issues, while also being a solution for truly remote schools in places such as Bangladesh, where a successful pilot scheme for Project Loon enabled teachers in Dhaka to be "beamed" to remote rural classrooms full of children.

How cost effective it will be, though, is unclear. Google stresses that the project is in its early days and costs are not yet clear. All it will say is that it is "motivated by the idea that people in rural or remote areas without regular internet access might one day get it".

Whether there is an unspoken "and pay for it" at the end of that sentence may determine how much of a saviour this could really be to those remote schools marooned in internet blackspots.

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