Google’s Project Loon balloons will float over Indonesia next year

Google parent company Alphabet is about to untether what could be the biggest trial yet of its balloon-powered Internet ambitions, launching Project Loon over Indonesia next year.

Alphabet’s president, Sergey Brin, and Indonesian officials and telecom executives gathered Wednesday at the Mountain View campus of X, the company’s futuristic research division, to announce the trial project that will begin next year over the world’s fourth most populous country.

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The company will be partnering with Indonesia’s three biggest wireless carriers — Indosat, Telkomsel and XL Axiata — to test Project Loon beginning next year.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo was also supposed to attend the event, but cut short his U.S. tour to respond to a mounting crisis caused by forest fires back home.

The trial will have a far bigger reach than Project Loon’s other planned launch next year in the island country of Sri Lanka, which was announced several months ago. Loon has also partnered with mobile networks in Australia and New Zealand to test its high-altitude technology there.

“Sri Lanka is 65,000 square miles,” said Mike Cassidy, the head of Project Loon, in an interview Wednesday. “It’s easier in some ways to connect the country. You only need 13 balloons. Indonesia is 750,000 square miles. It’s huge. But it’s also great for Indonesia because it’s so hard to string wires across so many islands.”

The company said in a blog statement Wednesday that “Loon can help telecommunications companies extend their networks; high in the sky, we can help overcome the difficulties of spreading equipment across an archipelago of 17,000 islands of jungles and mountains, providing connectivity to even the most remote islands.”

The plan is to get high-speed LTE Internet connections “within reach of more than 100 million currently unconnected people” in the coming years, the company said. The local telecommunications companies will maintain the customer relationships, Cassidy said.

What Loon is doing is effectively building the cell towers for those companies, “except the cell towers we’re building are 20 kilometers in the air, 60,000 feet in the air,” Cassidy said.

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That kind of access could help Indonesian fishermen as well as farmers, who work in areas with no Internet infrastructure, said Dian Siswarini, CEO of XL Axiata.

But in his comments Wednesday, Indonesia’s tech and communications minister, Rudiantara, suggested that how Loon transforms from a trial to a commercial operation remains unclear.

Some telecoms remain wary and at least one was not on board just a few weeks ago, the Jakarta Globe reported earlier this month, quoting an executive at Telekomunikasi Indonesia (Telkom), who feared the Loon project would undermine its own fiber optic network.

The balloon-powered Internet project grew out of what used to be known as Google X, the secretive division that also spawned self-driving cars and Glass headgear. But the reorganization of Google under the Alphabet conglomerate has made X, and several other divisions, their own companies separate from Google’s core Internet business.

“We’re now calling it X,” Brin said at Wednesday’s event. “Just X. We’re still experimenting with the name a bit.”

The Alphabet reorganization, said Brin, allows each subsidiary to have “clear missions.”

For Loon engineers, it means “your job is to just bring connectivity to the world with these balloons.”

Above: Google announced a trial of its Internet balloons to launch in the sky over Indonesia next year. (Photo by Matt O’Brien)

 

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