Back in March I covered some of the most exciting trends the world of technology had to offer at Austin’s SXSW Interactive Festival. My favorite by leaps and bounds was a panel given by Google’s own Astro Teller, who has been instrumental in project development for the company’s notoriously secretive X Labs. One of the most exciting projects in the X Labs pipeline at that time was Google’s Project Loon, which sought to provide high-speed internet access to under-served or underdeveloped areas through the use of high-altitude balloons. Now, after two years of testing and pilot programs, the Project Loon initiative of a “balloon-powered internet for everyone” is finally taking off over Sri Lanka.
Google has officially solidified plans to start releasing their stratospheric balloons into the air over Sri Lanka in the coming months, and will continue to do so until March 2016. These balloons work by providing connectivity to a ground area roughly 40 kilometers in diameter using LTE, which Google has partnered with telecommunications companies to provide to them. Essentially, the partnership allows them to share the same cellular spectrum, providing direct internet anywhere in the served area. The balloons then relay wireless traffic from smartphones and other mobile devices back to the global Internet using high-speed links, resulting in a blanketed full-coverage area of affordable, high-speed internet. According to the Sri Lankan Information and Communication Technology Agency, these balloons will likely cover the entire country by March 2016. And that’s why their local government news portal announced today that Sri Lanka is “on its way to becoming the first country in the world to have universal internet coverage”.
Take a minute and let that last line sink in… an entire country provided with universal internet coverage. And sure, the entire nation of Sri Lanka could fit into the state of Texas ten times over, but it still has 2.8 million mobile internet users in addition to their 606,000 fixed-line users, making it an ideal location for testing Project Loon’s innovative initiative. And the balloons, which each stay aloft for 100 days, aren’t just helping locals who can’t afford or access internet service. Local internet providers will actually be able to buy access into the Project Loon system to help lower their own operational costs and further connect their subscribers. If Sri Lanka still seems an odd choice, consider the technological history of the tiny island nation. Not only were they the first country in South Asia to introduce mobile phones in 1989, but they were also the first in their region to unveil a 4G network just two years ago. These facts combined with the country’s relatively small size make it an ideal testing ground for the “universal internet coverage” initiative; if Project Loon can succeed on a scale that size, it seems very plausible that the experimental technology could make its way to bigger nations in the not-so-distant future.
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