Internet Balloons and the Future of Access

Yesterday at a lovely family Father’s Day barbecue, my father mentioned that he read something about Google launching high-atmosphere balloons that can bring internet to places where access is as yet otherwise unobtainable.  Lo and behold, upon arriving home I found this article right on the front page of CNN online.

Up Up and Away: Google to Launch Wi-Fi Balloon Experiment

Google is indeed enacting experimental balloon technology to bring Wi-Fi to areas that currently do not have easy internet access.  According to the article, each 40-foot polyethylene balloon will float in the stratosphere (higher than planes fly and weather hits) and will be able to provide internet to hundreds of users in a 25-mile radius at speeds comparable to 3G.  Not too shabby, if you ask me.  The experiment will involve 60 households that will attempt to link up to the balloons in areas of New Zealand.

While the technology is still experimental, it is nice to see Google actually enacting this principle.  I have heard about the possibility of floating internet hubs for years, both in casual science/technology news reading and science fiction.  In the near-future world of Hugo Award winning author Vernor Vinge‘s Rainbows End, for example, the internet-dependent world is constantly able to access the internet via hovering mini-zeppelins all over the airscape (and in a cool addition, the internet interface is managed through contact lenses that are synced to circuitry in your clothes that actually do the connecting). What I like most about this actual Google experiment is the sheer scope of the hovering balloons.  They are so high and so powerful that they won’t interfere with anything else we do in the air, and we won’t even be able to see them with the naked eye.  Furthermore, unlike the mini-zeppelins in Rainbows End, one balloon will cover a much larger area on the ground.

As soon as Wi-Fi became mainstream, I began to wonder about how the future of internet access might shape up.  I remember when Bryant park in New York City became one of the first places I’d heard of to offer free public Wi-Fi, and I thought the “revolution” of free wireless internet in every corner of the city was underway.  Of course, that grand vision hasn’t happened yet, especially the free part (and it probably won’t, since, well, we do live in a capitalist society), and while other places now offer small pockets of free internet access, it hasn’t gotten nearly as widespread as it could be by now.

Yet Google’s experiment could certainly be the first step in accelerating the sluggish pace of internet access growth.  Now there’s a viable option that can bring internet access to vast swaths of the two-thirds of the world that doesn’t have access yet.

And in my opinion, this is entirely essential for the growth of the world as a whole.  The internet itself is the present and the future; everything will rely on it soon if it doesn’t already.  It thus logically follows that as the dependence on the internet grows for the technologically advanced parts of the world, those without internet access will fall even more behind the rest of the world that much more quickly.  There are still parts of the world that do not have ready access to electricity, much less internet.  Technology like this is essential for spreading resources and moving humanity forward as a cohesive race.

My personal thoughts extend beyond just the capability of widespread internet access to questions such as this:  Should this widespread access to the internet be free?  Is the internet something that can really be lorded over int he capitalist model in the future?  As I said, some places offer free internet connectivity in small pockets.  Is the future of the internet free?  Or will Google or other companies charge for access to to this ever expansive wi-fi?  Undoubtedly, it will not be free for a long time (despite how generally “open source” Google often is, they are not an actual ISP as far as I know).  Perhaps this is just the future of paying for Verizon Fios or Time Warner Roadrunner, etc.  I would like to think that eventually basic access to the internet will be pro bono across the world, from every inhabited inch of it.  Is this practical?  Will it ever happen?  What do YOU think?


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