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Google kicks off Project Loon Internet access scheme in New Zealand

Google has confirmed plans to provide Internet access to underserved areas via high-flying balloons.

The effort, dubbed Project Loon, got started with a pilot in the Canterbury area of New Zealand with 30 balloons in the air and 50 testers on the ground.

"This is the first time we've launched this many balloons (30 this week, in fact) and tried to connect to this many receivers on the ground, and we're going to learn a lot that will help us improve our technology and balloon design," Mike Cassidy, head of Project Loon, wrote in a blog post.

Why balloons? While many of us take Internet access for granted, there are corners of the globe that are very difficult to wire up due to their location and the cost associated with providing Internet access there.

With balloons flying high overhead, people can conceivably connect to the web without having to build a complex physical infrastructure on the ground. "It's very early days, but we've built a system that uses balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, to beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today's 3G networks or faster," Cassidy wrote.

The balloons, he said, could also help with communications in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

So, instead of having to deploy an entire network, the balloons connect with specialised ariels on the ground, Google said. They then connect with the balloons overhead, which communicate with a ground station connected to a local Internet service provider.

Google is controlling the balloons - which measure about 50 feet in diameter - using wind and solar power; "we can move the balloons up or down to catch the winds we want them to travel in," Cassidy said. Getting the balloons exactly where you need them to be is a bit more challenging, but "we're solving this with some complex algorithms and lots of computing power," he said.

Cassidy said Google wants to find partners for the next phase of Project Loon. "We can't wait to hear feedback and ideas from people who've been working for far longer than we have on this enormous problem of providing Internet access to rural and remote areas," he wrote. "We imagine someday you'll be able to use your cell phone with your existing service provider to connect to the balloons and get connectivity where there is none today."

Reports of Google's balloon project first emerged in May with a report from the Wall Street Journal. The effort is part of Google[x], a lab that focuses on futuristic projects.