Google installing hundreds of internet-enabled balloons in Indonesia

CALIFORNIA: How do you connect a country made up of 17,000 islands to the internet? That’s the huge infrastructure challenge faced by Indonesia, and one that Google hopes to address using its high altitude ‘Project Loon’ balloons.

The Silicon Valley giant has partnered with three Indonesian internet service providers — Telkomsel, Axiata and Inmost — to deliver LTE connectivity to remote areas via clusters of giant helium balloons to places where fixed-line service aren’t available. It is part of the company’s plan to help connect some of the billions of people around the world who remain offline.

“Indonesia is the perfect fit for Project Loon,” said Mike Cassidy, project leader for Loon, speaking at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View in front of a fully inflated balloon.

“Occasionally getting out of communications range is healthy for all of us,” added Google Co-founder Sergey Brin, “But if it’s part of your daily life and you don’t have access to the information and the ability to communicate with people important to you that’s a real disadvantage.” According to eMarketer, only 29 per cent of Indonesians have access to the internet and connection speeds are slow, largely thanks to challenging geography and a thinly spread population of around 255 million people, which makes it expensive to build a network using underwater cables. Until now, satellite-delivered internet access has been the only option for many — although the satellite dish installation and data costs can be prohibitively expensive for poorer communities.

To use Google’s balloon-based offering, people on the ground only need a mobile device to get online with speeds of up to 10 megabits per second. While Indonesia has close to 100 per cent mobile penetration, only 23 per cent are smartphones, which means that even if the coverage is there, consumers may not have the devices to access the network.

Google will spend 12 months testing the technology with its three partners before rolling out a commercial product. Tariffs have yet to be established. The mobile operators handle the customer relationship and billing, while Google is simply building the cell ‘towers’ — balloons 20,000 m in the air. “We will need many hundreds of balloons to cover Indonesia,” added Cassidy.