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After The Internet Bubble, Here Comes The Internet Balloon

Google is leading a project in Brazil to use balloons to bring Internet connection to the remote corners of the Amazon.

One of Google's Project Loon balloons
One of Google's Project Loon balloons
Yuri Gonzaga

SAO PAULO — We hear every day about how connected the world has become. But according to an estimate by the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union, some 4.3 billion people still live their lives completely offline. In other words, more than 60% of the world's populations doesn't have Internet access.

As part of an ambitious mission of digital inclusion, Google has announced its Loon project, aiming to take the Internet to the most remote and underprivileged areas using balloons equipped with radio antennas to provide access similar in speed to 3G, according to the search giant.

In the first half of 2014, the initiative will be tested in the Amazon forest. "This project will no doubt contribute significantly to developing access to the Internet in that large area which is difficult to reach with traditional technologies," said Brazilian Communications Minister Paulo Bernardo after a meeting with Google representatives last month.

The government didn't disclose the level of its financial contribution to the project, but said the costs were "reasonable."

The Loon, named after an aquatic bird, has been tested in New Zealand since June, with some 30 balloons launched and 50 local testers responsible for piloting them.

"It sounds a bit like science fiction, but I'm very confident the project will turn into reality," Google engineer Sameera Ponda told news agency Efe. "Taking the Internet to all with balloons is easier and cheaper than doing it with satellites."

Brazil's National Institute for Space Research presented a similar project in mid-November, except it uses balloons that are attached to the ground. According to the organization, this balloon carries radios capable of transmitting data at broadband speed at up to 50 kilometers of distance. That initiative, called Conectar, is backed by Telebrás — Brazil's former telephone operator and now in charge of the country's National Broadband Plan — and the Research and Development Center in Telecommunications (CPqD).

Google has also announced another project, Link, with the goal of establishing fiber-optic networks in Uganda's capital city, Kampala, as only 14.7% of the country's population has access to the Internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Facebook is also leading a similar project with Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and Qualcomm. Called Internet.org, it's aimed at connecting the whole planet to the Internet, especially by bringing down costs of mobile connectivity and smartphones. Cisco corporation believes that the number of mobile devices connected to the Internet will exceed the number of people on the planet this year.

The focus on mobile technology accelerates digital inclusion, yet it could prove insufficient for certain uses such as distance learning, according to Alexandre Fernandes Barbosa, one of the coordinators of Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI). "How do we develop a software for companies or for education, for example, for a smartphone? It's not the same as for PCs," he explains.

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