Google Is Reportedly Testing Blimps That Dole Out Wireless-Internet Signals

What if you don't have the proper infrastructure in place to house wireless base stations on the ground? The answer might ultimately be found in the skies

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This past winter, I found myself at the intersection of Green Street and High Street in Charlestown, Mass., when what to my wondering eyes should appear but one of Google’s Street View cars.

“Here comes my 15 minutes of fame,” I thought to myself. “I shall be immortalized in the Street View imagery of this intersection — right in my own neighborhood.” Until the next time a Google Street View car swings through and takes new photos, all of my neighbors will wave to me, shouting, “Hey, lookin’ good, Street View Man!” They’ll never take the time to learn my real name, of course.

Well, Google still hasn’t updated the Street View imagery with whichever images have me in them (consequently, nobody waves to me), but the thrill of seeing a Street View car so close that I could touch it brought with it a rush of adrenaline so overpowering it was as though I stared down an entire pride of lions, looked the leader in its eyes and whispered, “Catch me if you can,” before taking off like a two-legged antelope.

Maybe it wasn’t quite that exciting. But you’re here to read about blimps anyway.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting, in several words, that Google wants to bring Internet access to parts of the world where there is no Internet access or where there’s only spotty, slow Internet access. That much should not be a surprise. How Google would go about bringing Internet access to these areas is slightly more interesting, however.

One way to do this is by leveraging unused airspace that traditionally carries TV signals, also known as white space. Google already has a field trial under way in Cape Town, whereby three base stations planted at a local university will send wireless signals out to 10 nearby schools.

Says Google:

White space has the advantage that low-frequency signals can travel longer distances. The technology is well suited to provide low-cost connectivity to rural communities with poor telecommunications infrastructure, and for expanding coverage of wireless broadband in densely populated urban areas.

That’s all well and good, but what if you don’t even have the proper infrastructure in place to house the requisite base stations? The answer might ultimately be found in the skies.

According to the Journal’s article, Google “has worked on making special balloons or blimps, known as high-altitude platforms, to transmit signals to an area of hundreds of square miles, though such a network would involve frequencies other than the TV-broadcast ones.”

This information reportedly comes from “people familiar with the strategy,” so take it with a grain of salt. It could very well be that Google is testing such a system but may never bring it to market. The same sources told the Journal that Google “has also considered helping to create a satellite-based network.”

So which approach will work best? “There’s not going to be one technology that will be the silver bullet,” said one of the Journal’s sources. But if you someday see a Google blimp in the sky, it may be blanketing your town with wireless-Internet signals. Or maybe even taking pictures at angles the Street View cars can’t manage. Or both!

Link to the Journal story: “Google to Fund, Develop Wireless Networks in Emerging Markets”