Google is trying to increase the number of people who have Internet access with an experimental effort called “Project Loon”. The idea is to use high-altitude balloons to send and receive, as well as relay, signals that would carry data hash. It is the word, “balloon,” that provides the project a contraction that is the very namesake of the effort. Admittedly, on first read, one could easily presume loon actually referred to a crazy person, which is one of the official definitions of the term, among others.
Most of the people around the world are not online. In developed nations, the percentage of the population that is connected to the Internet is high, about 73%, according to one estimate on Wikipedia.org. However, the number of users in underdeveloped nations is considerably less, and the total population of Earth that is actually online falls as a result. The percentage of our 7-billion souls with internet access is about 36%, according to the same article, which cites reasonable sources for its figures.
Indeed, as one examines the chart above, the percentage of global Internet users in 2013 is roughly the same as the percentage of Internet users in the United States in 2001. The figures are dramatic, and they underscore the fact that for most of the world, infrastructure and the financing to build it are sorely lacking. Internet access is a dream, and it is perhaps a distant one.
Google’s effort, which may be motivated by business opportunity as much as altruism, has the potential to bring the web to the world’s billions, using a novel approach to infrastructure development. The idea is simple, even if the immediate execution is not so easy. The benefits to those currently not online is immense.
Access to the world of knowledge, art, political ideas, entertainment and so much more would empower vast populations that are presently yearning for opportunities to better themselves and improve their station in the world. The video produced by Google, to promote Google Loon, uses simple and captivating animation and narration to demonstrate this point.
Google Loon has been unveiled at a time when the Internet Corporation for the Assignment of Names and Numbers, ICANN, is opening the top level domain system to dozens, and eventually hundreds, of new generic top level domains, gTLDs, as they are called. A gTLD is the extension at the end of a web address. For instance, “.com” is a gTLD, as is “.net”, “.org,” and so forth. The first new extensions have already been assigned to new registry operators, but these first four new gTLDs, which were made known in October, are not for the English-speakers of the world.
ICANN began the process of rolling out new gTLDs several years ago. While there are many who question whether these new gTLDs will actually make the Internet more open and available to greater numbers of people, there has been no shortage of businesses, organizations, even individuals, who have stepped forward to propose and operate new gTLDs. Google is among them.
Given the relative obscurity and low-usage rate of gTLDs outside the realm of the .com and .org extensions, there has been no shortage of detractors who suggest the new gTLDs will not actually serve the purpose of opening up access to the Internet. Indeed, lacking connectivity or any immediate plans for new infrastructure in the developing nations, these gTLDs certainly are not likely to immediately have the impact the dreamers may hope.
In developed nations, particularly the United States and Canada, the .com is so ubiquitous it is part of the very web lexicon. For the populations in these places, .com is the Internet. In Europe, Australia and South America, country-code TLDs, ccTLDs, for any given nation are equally identified with the web. In Germany, for instance, .de, for Deutschland, is .com’s counterpart and equal. The same could be said for .ca in Canada, .cn in China or .co.uk in the United Kingdom.
All these nations and populations have a couple of things in common: A well-developed web infrastructure and a mature Internet audience experienced in access and usage of materials online. In other words, the people of these regions are used to being online and have attained an instinct about how to use it.
No new gTLD will make it possible to develop that “Internet instinct” for people living developing nations, but Google Loon just might. It has the potential to open access to an existing world of websites, already built on established TLDs, that will unleash opportunity to billions of people who, heretofore, have never known the access you and I take for granted.
For those aforementioned businesses already online, the implications are equally potent. While the buying power of the people in these nations is nowhere near that of the so-called first-world populations, online access could open up investment opportunities that will bring monetary investment to these previously-inaccessible masses. Nearly two-thirds of the planet will, over the course of the next generation, perhaps the next 20 years of the Internet, become a new breed of consumers, educators, students and, yes, influential people.
Loon will be the first access point for these influential, educating consumers. If it works well, and progress may be slow, at first, these new web users will then teach us about themselves; we will be teaching them of us. Cultures will be exchanged, and some will clash. Ideas will be shared, and attempts will be made to block those ideas by some governments or groups threatened by this loony idea of balloon-based connectivity.
Indeed, between the Loon and the looming gTLD releases starting in 2014, the world wide web is about to become much more worldly. The opportunities for every person alive and those to come are likely unfathomable and, therefore, incalculable.