Google's magic Internet balloons bringing Wi-Fi to India

The software and hardware giant hopes to succeed where Facebook's Free Basics failed -- connecting hundreds of millions of Indians in rural areas to the Internet with Project Loon.

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Daniel Van Boom
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Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had his hopes of connecting India dashed when Free Basics, a plan offering free access to selected websites and apps, was banned by the country's regulators. Now, Google is stepping up to the plate to connect rural India.

Rajan Anandan, Google's managing director for India, told the Economic Times that Google has been in talks with telecommunication firms to collaborate on Project Loon, which sees high-altitude balloons beam speedy Wi-Fi down to remote areas in developing countries.

"The actual provisioning of the service is done by a local telco. So, we're talking to a number of local telcos," Anandan told the publication. "We can't do a Loon pilot without partnering with a local telco."

He described the project as "infrastructure in the sky," and added, "the government has been very supportive." Google has been contacted for further comment.

India is the world's second largest country, but around 68 percent of its population -- 880 million people -- live in rural conditions or poverty. Facebook hoped to help those in remote areas with its Free Basics scheme, but it was banned last month due to violating the tenants of Net Neutrality, the idea that all Internet sites should be made equally available by service providers.

Free Basics, still available in over 30 other countries, would provide people with free access to a selected list of sites and apps, one of which was, of course, Facebook. This caused many to say that Free Basics provided companies with an unfair market advantage.

It's likely that Google won't encounter the same problem, since Project Loon's Wi-Fi provides equal access to all sites on the Internet. Google has yet to announce whether or not the connection provided by the project, announced in 2013, will be free, though it has stated that the goal of the project is to deliver Internet access to every corner of the world.

The Menlo Park, California-based company first began testing its Project Loon balloons in New Zealand, where they were able to stay in the stratosphere for several days and beam 3G Internet speeds down to receiver stations on the ground. It has since ironed out a lot of kinks, amped up balloon strength and extended field-testing in different countries around the world, like Brazil and the US. One of the balloons, Ibis-167, circled the globe in a record 22 days, and other balloons have been designed to stay aloft for more than 100 days.