Only about 1 in 5 people in Sri Lanka are connected to the Internet today. With the help of Google’s balloon-based Internet network, Project Loon, 100% Sri Lanka residents will almost immediately be plugged in. Instead of spending many years and even more zillions of dollars laying cables, Sri Lanka and Google will put the Internet in the air, floating 12 miles above the Earth, and beaming down connections to every town and village.
This is Project Loon’s first mass deployment, after trials in New Zealand and Brazil. On June 28th, Google signed an agreement with the Sri Lanka government that will let local telcos connect to the balloon network.
The Loon balloons drift in the stratosphere above commercial air corridors and way above the mountain tops. Up there, the winds blow like currents in the sea, with different layers moving in different directions. The solar-powered balloons steer themselves by moving up and down, catching a layer that’s heading their way.
The network itself is what’s called a mesh network. The Internet is beamed up to the nearest balloons, and each distributes it to the next. Data leapfrogs from Loon to Loon, and is sent back to base stations in towns and villages. These stations are connected to the local ISPs, and Internet happens. In short, regular Internet users won’t connect to the balloons, any more than we connect direct to the Internet cables that run under oceans. Loon is infrastructure.
In Sri Lanka, Google will partner with local telecom companies to provide a nationwide LTE-speed network, which is faster than the fixed connections in much of the rural U.S.
“Hopefully in a few months every person and every device on the island will be covered,” said Harsha de Silva, Deputy Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs. The connections from the balloons will be “shared, bringing down transmission costs leading to further reductions in cost of service provision,” he said.
Sri Lanka covers around 25,000 square miles and has a population of 22 million. This relatively compact layout makes it ideal for a Loon network. If this first deployment goes well, it’ll be exciting to see what Loon can do in larger countries that are poorly connected today.