Google Loon Project: Free WiFi Access for everyone via Baloons in Stratosphere

Google’s latest “moonshot” project is Project Loon, a phalanx of balloons that sail in the stratosphere like low level satellites. The objective is to bring broadband capability to less developed parts of the world, an ambition Google GOOG +1.35% is also pursuing through its White Spaces project.

Google ran its first test on Saturday in New Zealand – here’s one report. It gave people 15 minutes of access before the balloons floated away.

However Loon takes us close to what Google is really about right now. Although Google has its “way-out” projects like Driverless Cars and Google Glass, those projects are adding nothing to the business. They create great press and clearly they have lifted the stock price, but Google is an ad company and autos and Glass will not add to that revenue stream. They might not provide alternatives for many years to come.

What does, and what will, is getting more people online with better connectivity, and controlling that process. In that sense Loon is really about the future of Google’s core business.

On a technical note Google says that winds in the stratosphere are slow and that’s what makes Loon feasible. The balloons will use solar power to move the communications equipment between layers of slow moving winds – I have only been able to find information that says they are highly variable and often very fast. So, there are some unknowns here. But Google is wrestling with how to be an infrastructure player, in order to bring more customers to its core business.

Google Fiber, one of its three telco infrastructure projects, is too slow-build to matter in the near future. In White Spaces, the use of excess TV spectrum, Google is in a tight battle with Microsoft MSFT +1.74%, especially in Africa where Microsoft seems to be moving ahead with rural access, much faster than Google has.

More generally, both are going to have to battle with Samsung in global wireless infrastructure because something strange, innovative and remarkable is going on with these companies (Huawei and ZTE are also players). Integration. Device to infrastructure and everything in between.

Integration is also on the agenda at Samsung. Go here for a summary of Samsung’s moves into 5G wireless. It’s a big play for all three and really illustrates how business is changing substantially. Yes, Loon is fun but integration is very serious.

Loon looks like an imaginative, perhaps fantasy bet on some possible, alternative access technology for Google. But as Google admits, its current status is highly experimental. The Loon website promises “Internet for all”, which is typical Google language these days. But many of us have good Internet. This is a project for the developing economies where both Microsoft and Google will have infrastructure, devices and services.

Loon relies on some beautiful reasoning “Winds in the stratosphere are generally steady and slow-moving at between 5 and 20 mph, and each layer of wind varies in direction and magnitude (see above). Project Loon uses software algorithms to determine where its balloons need to go, then moves each one into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to form one large communications network.”

So they might, and if they do then Google will have found a way to join the emerging global infrastructure club. It won’t be enough – by the time it rolls out, if it works, the world will have moved beyond 3G, the capacity Google expects from its balloons. Most interesting of all though we can now see the competitive, innovation landscape evolving alongside a new business strategy. Device, software, cloud, services, infrastructure. That makes Loon Google’s second most important project, behind one that gets very little press – White Spaces for rural, developing areas. All prosaic in comparison with Glass and driverless cars. But this is business.