Google plans to connect 100 million Indonesians with its high-altitude internet balloons

That’s a big balloon.
That’s a big balloon.
Image: Google
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Indonesia is the latest country to sign up for Google’s Loon, an experimental project that aims to bring free internet to people in remote rural areas using giant balloons floating in the stratosphere. If all goes according to plan, the balloons should supply 4G-like speeds to the country. That would be a significant upgrade, since Indonesia has some of the slowest internet speeds in Southeast Asia (paywall).

Google says it will work with Indonesia’s three biggest mobile network operators—Indosat, Telkomsel, and XL Axiata—to test the project and maintain the efficacy of the balloons. (Google has to replace the helium-filled spheres about once every 100 days.)

With 250 million people, Indonesia has the fourth largest population in the world, but only about a third of those people are connected to the internet. The country’s unique geography—thousands of small islands dense with jungles and mountains—renders building traditional internet structures like cell towers and cable lines quite difficult. Sending internet balloons into the stratosphere is much easier.

The balloons are positioned 12 miles (19 kilometers) in the sky, nearly scraping the edge of space. (Most commercial planes fly at about half that height.) Each balloon can cover 25 miles (40 km) in diameter on the ground, where people can connect directly to the balloon’s network.

While this is perhaps Loon’s most ambitious development yet, Google (now part of Alphabet, the holding company it formed for itself in August) ultimately has much grander plans. Loon director Mike Cassidy told the BBC that he hopes to “make a continuous string [of balloons] around the world.” Before coming to Indonesia, Google had already tested Project Loon in several countries, including Sri Lanka, where it plans to launch enough balloons to provide connectivity to the entirety of the small island nation.