Project Loon is headed for testing in Indonesia.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — Alphabet’s Project Loon is one step closer to taking flight.
The project uses high-flying balloons to beam Wi-Fi access to remote areas of the globe. Alphabet, the new parent company of Google, said Wednesday it will begin testing the balloons in Indonesia.
Alphabet is signing a preliminary agreement, known as a memorandum of understanding, with three Indonesian telecommunications companies — Indosat, Telkomsel and XL Axiata — to bring the balloons to the country over the next year.
“While the physical distance between here and Indonesia is great, increasingly the emotional distance around the world is shrinking,” Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and Alphabet president, said at a press event here.
That’s because of our world becoming more connected, but it’s not enough, he said. Brin stood next to a large inflated balloon on display in the courtyard of Google X offices, the secretive lab where the project was developed. The prop balloon, though, was only half the size of the actual ones that will take flight.
Four billion people still doesn’t have access to the Web, according to Alphabet. Changing that could help have staggering implications for emerging countries. It could give rural villages video access to remote doctors and classrooms, for example. Access to the Internet could even help to break the cycle of poverty, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, because it would allow the rural poor to pay and be paid right from their phones.
Facebook has a similar goal, but wants to use drones instead of balloons. Space X CEO Elon Musk plans to launch clusters of cheap, low-flying satellites to beam the Internet around the world. And Sir Richard Branson wants to build the world’s largest satellite constellation to provide high-speed Internet to the billions who still don’t have it.
But by using balloons, Alphabet can skirt the need to build a network of cell towers. Instead, “the cell towers we’re building are 60,000 feet up in the sky,” said Mike Cassidy, vice president of Project Loon.
Of course, helping villagers in remote locations get online is also good for Alphabet’s business. The more people connected to the Internet, the more people are likely to use the company’s services, including Gmail, search and its YouTube video site.
The solar- and battery-powered balloons will fly the stratosphere — eight to 30 miles above the ground. The team handling the project, which was born out of Google’s secretive X lab, began tests two years ago in New Zealand and has since expanded into Brazil and California’s Central Valley. The team has also done preliminary testing in Sri Lanka.
Now Indonesia joins that small group.
Developing flying cell towers hasn’t always gone smoothly. Astro Teller, the head of Google X, said in March he’s had to send teams by boat and helicopter to the Arctic Circle and South Pacific to collect balloons that had drifted where they shouldn’t have.
Alphabet said it still does not have a date for a full commercial launch, but will look at the Indonesian pilot to see how much work still needs to be done.
“This testing is going to be very revealing to us about how close we are to commercial launch,” said Cassidy.