The balloons would provide wireless connectivity to those who don't have it. It seems a goofy idea, but Google seems to think it's worthwhile
This can't be a rumor, because The Wall Street Journal reported it; Google is considering contracting with a company with the exotic name of Space Data, or even buying it. This bit of news might just become that much hot air after a few weeks, but it's quaintly interesting nevertheless -- because it involves sending up balloons to extend a long-range cell network, or a wide-area (broadband) Internet network. In short, it goes like this: there's a tower at place A, and place B, hundreds of kilometres away, has no coverage -- so send up a balloon with transceivers into the stratosphere at place B, and the network gets extended. In fact, a signal could get spread across thousands of square kilometres this way; word is that an equivalent feat via cellular towers would need 40 of them to be put up.
No, we aren't kidding, and neither are they: balloons are an inexpensive proposition (just plastic and some gas, to be precise, and the transceivers aren't expensive either), so wireless service could be offered in remote areas at a low cost. Space Data isn't fumbling with a new concept: it already launches 10 balloons a day across parts of the southern US, providing telecom services to oil companies, among others. Their technology is even used by the US Air Force.
The part that seems really random to us is this: the balloons don't permanently remain up in the atmosphere. When they've done their duty, the transceiver comes down to earth (via parachute, of course, so no-one gets hurt...). Space Data pays $100 for each transceiver that's brought back to them. ("Look what I found! A transceiver!")
Those in the know say the bandwidth isn't all that impressive, and that lost-and-found transceiver bit (we can't stop harping on that one) just seems hilarious... Google and Space Data haven't yet commented on whether a deal is on the cards, but this one just goes to show that no-one in Google's Department Of Expansion is creativity-challenged.