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Google tallies new partners for Project Loon

The Internet giant says it's working hard on moonshot projects, like its Wi-Fi blimps and self-driving cars.

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Google shows off one of its Project Loon Wi-Fi balloons during its annual developers conference. James Martin/CNET

Google's plan to bring Wi-Fi to the world with high-flying "Project Loon" balloons is edging closer to reality.

The company announced Thursday at its annual developers conference, Google I/O 2015, that these balloons can now stay up in the air for more days, have higher connectivity and can cover more areas than before. Google also said it's partnering with telecommunications companies, like Spain's Telefonica and Australia's Telstra, for the project.

Project Loon is our "plan to put balloons at the edge of space," Google's senior vice president of Chrome and apps, Sundar Pichai, said during the keynote presentation. We want to "bring the next billion users online."

Google has been increasingly ambitious about expanding its scope of products beyond its juggernaut search engine. Its search and advertising business is still the most dominant in the world, making more than $50 billion a year. But as the Internet evolves, CEO Larry Page has been looking for new sources of revenue streams. The company has made big bets in everything from Project Loon to wearable devices to driverless cars.

Project Loon comes out of Google's experimental research and development lab, dubbed Google X, which started in 2010. It's headed by Astro Teller, Google's so-called "Captain of Moonshots," which is Google parlance for its most out-there projects. Other Google X initiatives include the driverless cars, contact lenses with glucose readers for diabetes patients and nanoparticles for cancer detection.

The goal with Project Loon, which Google announced in June 2013, is to deliver Internet access to every corner of the world -- from rural schools in Brazil to the top of Mt. Everest. When Google first began test flying its Project Loon balloons in New Zealand it was working to get the balloons to stay up in the stratosphere for several days and to beam Internet access at speeds similar to 3G networks via special antennas and 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. And the company is also working on high-speed 4G LTE connectivity, which means users could get Wi-Fi service on their cell phones via Project Loon.

Over the past couple of years, Google has collected vast amounts of wind data to refine its prediction models to better forecast Project Loon flight trajectories. Additionally, the company has enhanced its balloon air pumps to become more efficient, which allows for balloons to quickly change altitudes and jump onto faster air currents or avoid adverse winds.

During Thursday's conference, Pichai said that Project Loon can now provide Internet access to a land area the size of Rhode Island with speeds of 10 megabits per second, which is as fast as broadband or cable Internet.

Google isn't the only tech company looking to spread the Internet to far reaches of the world. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Facebook are also testing futuristic ways to get more people connected. Facebook announced in March that it is working on an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, that could beam the Internet down to people while aloft; and Musk said in January he's planning to build a fleet of satellites that could speed up the Internet and bring access to underserved communities.

On Thursday, Pichai also touted Google's foray into self-driving cars. While not announcing anything new, he did say that more prototypes are hitting the road near Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Pichai also said that these driverless cars have covered more than a million miles without causing a single accident.

Projects like these are at the heart of what we try to do, Pichai said. "Solve problems for everyone in the world."

See all of today's Google I/O news.