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Bringing Extreme WIFI To Remote Places

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are still some five billion people around the world without access to the Internet. But a group of techies is trying to change that. They have spent the last few days experimenting with balloons in an effort to get people in rural, remote places online.

STEVEN LEVY: They introduced something called Project Loon.

MARTIN: Steven Levy is a senior writer with Wired magazine. He was embedded with a team of Google employees who are kind of like the company's special forces. They are part of a research lab called Google X.

LEVY: And its job is to engage in what they call moon shots, super-ambitious projects to accomplish things that people think are a little crazy but are somehow within grasp.

MARTIN: And that's where the balloons come in - and not the kind you'd get at the fair.

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LEVY: They're a little closer to the ones you might give someone at the office party with a happy birthday on it or something like that, the shiny Mylar ones.

MARTIN: Only much, much bigger. In fact, able to float twice as high as commercial airplanes fly. These balloons are also decked out with solar panels and antennas.

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LEVY: That beam down Internet access to people who otherwise couldn't get it.

MARTIN: The idea is to create floating relay stations that could essentially drift on the wind like a giant flock of birds. And there would be a lot of them - enough to provide worldwide wireless coverage. You might be thinking, don't satellites already do exactly this? Well, yes. But, says Steven Levy...

LEVY: It's a much lower cost to launch a balloon than to send a satellite into outer space.

MARTIN: Leading to more affordable access to all the knowledge the Internet holds. And, of course, all those memes and cat videos too.

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MARTIN: You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.