In most developed countries the internet has shifted its status from a luxury to a necessity as people use it as a source of research, banking and entertainment so understandably it has a high adoption rate with almost 80% of the United States and 85% of the European Union having access to the internet. Furthermore, the United Nations sees internet access as a key part of its goal to reduce global poverty.
Unfortunately, the adoption rate is much lower in Latin America with 63% of Latin Americans having internet access and that number is slightly less than half in Bolivia. While it is easy to blame affordability as the reason many do not connect online, that is only part of the problem. Many communities are in rural areas and that makes it difficult and costly to provide it, this is made even more difficult by the Andes. The good news is that many private companies such as Facebook, Google and Virgin see the importance of providing internet access for all, with one project, Google’s Project Loon may be the key for many Latin Americans to be connected for the first time.
So, what exactly is Project Loon? Announced in 2013, Project Loon was developed in Google’s incubation lab that uses balloons to create floating cellphone towers. It provides internet access in rural regions that are normally cost prohibitive to build towers. The project is still in its experimental stage but has already been successful helping communities recently hit by natural disasters. For the past year Google had been working with the Peruvian government to test out their balloons. The tests were to try a controlling mechanism to try and reduce the cost even further. This past year Peru had unfortunately been hit with heavy rains, mudslides and flooding. Seeing the many thousands of people being impacted Google offered to help. Relying on the infrastructure already in place from the field testing, they provided internet to the areas worst hit by flooding with over 160GB of data downloaded. This was the first time the balloons had been used by so many people and proved they could be a reliable internet source for many. The balloons have also recently been deployed to Puerto Rico to help provide connectivity to those impacted by Hurricane Maria.
A lot of work needs to be done before people can have constant internet access with these balloons, but the success Google had in Peru could not have happened so quickly had the infrastructure not already been in place and not had the full cooperation of the Peruvian government. This is a perfect example of a private-public partnership and many countries including Bolivia and countries with similar challenges, should reach out to Google and eliminate barriers for them to work with wireless providers so that when Project Loon is finally ready, their people will be too.
Internet World Stats (2017). Latin America Internet Usage Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats10.htm
Internet World Stats (2017). Bolivia Internet Usage and Market Reports. Retrieved from http://www.internetworldstats.com/sa/bo.htm
Larson, S. (2017) Google’s Project Loon helps bring the internet to flooded Peru. CNN. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2017/05/17/technology/project-loon-peru-flooding/index.html
Metz, C. (2017). Machine Learning Invades The Real World on Internet Balloons. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2017/02/machine-learning-drifting-real-world-internet-balloons/
Newcomb, A. (2017). How to Get Internet to Isolated Puerto Rico? With Balloons. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/innovation/google-s-balloons-show-how-tech-can-help-disaster-zones-n813391
Goodyear, S. (2017). Facebook and Google stake claims in developing world with global internet projects. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/universal-internet-access-1.3447635