Google is launching Internet-beaming balloons into near space as part of an ambitious project to provide faster Internet to the world. Project Loon, which was so far kept under a tight lid, was announced in New Zealand earlier today and 50 volunteer households have already got connected. The homes are enjoying 3G-like speeds thanks to the helium balloons that sail about 20 km above Earth.

At the moment, the balloon project is still in the experimental stage, but the search giant has the lofty plan of launching thousands of them to bring the Internet to even the most remote parts of the world. The technology is seen as an alternative to installing expensive fibre-optic cables in developing countries.

Google's Project Loon is underway

Google's Project Loon is underway

Besides bringing Internet to the world, Google hopes the balloons can one day be used in disaster-affected regions, where on-ground communication has been hampered. Each balloon is nearly 50 feet in diameter and an electronic equipments hang underneath each carrier, which include  radio antennae, a flight computer, an altitude control system and solar panels. Google says each balloon is able to stay aloft for about 100 days and provide connectivity to an area stretching 40 km in diameter below them.

It's pretty hard to get the internet to lots of parts of the world,” Richard DeVaul, chief technical architect at Google [x], the company’s top-secret division, which develops programmes like this, told the BBC. “Just because in principle you could take a satellite phone to sub-Saharan Africa and get a connection there, it doesn't mean the people have a cost-effective way of getting online. The idea behind Loon was that it might be easier to tie the world together by using what it has in common – the skies – than the process of laying fibre and trying to put up cellphone infrastructure.

Google has plans to bring Project Loon to Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Australia and is looking to tie up with other organisations to fit similar equipment on buildings.

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