Google's Project Loon edges closer to reality

The high-flying Wi-Fi balloons have gone from a far-fetched idea to delivering Internet access to a rural school in Brazil and tapping into LTE technology.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
2 min read

A Loon balloon makes an ascent near Campo Maior, Brazil. Google

Campo Maior, like other small towns in rural Brazil, has little to no Internet access. The locals tend to roam around and even climb trees to hunt for mobile wireless signals. The search for Internet access at night is called "vaga-lume," or "fireflying," because the illumination of cell phones across the town looks like little blinking fireflies.

However, just a few weeks ago -- for the first time ever -- Campo Maior's local school had the Internet beamed directly into its classrooms. This immediate Web access wasn't due to new infrastructure or fiber-optic cables, rather it was coming from one of Google's high-elevation Wi-Fi balloons.

Google officially announced its Project Loon balloons last June with the goal of bringing Internet access to every corner of the Earth. And now, with one year under its belt, the project has ironed out a lot of kinks, amped up balloon strength, and extended field-testing to places like Campo Maior.

"This test flight marked a few significant 'firsts' for Project Loon," Google wrote about its work in Campo Maior on its Project Loon Google+ page. "Launching near the equator taught us to overcome more dramatic temperature profiles, dripping humidity and scorpions. And we tested LTE technology for the first time; this could enable us to provide an Internet signal directly to mobile phones, opening up more options for bringing Internet access to more places."

When Google first began test flying its Project Loon balloons in New Zealand last year it was working to get the balloons to stay up several days and to beam Internet access at speeds similar to 3G networks via special antennas and receiver stations on the ground.

Now, one of the balloons, Ibis-167, has circled the globe in a record 22 days, and other balloons have been designed to stay aloft for more than 100 days. And, as Google noted, 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 year, 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.

In an interview with Wired, head of Google X Astro Teller appeared confident that Project Loon could someday soon move out of its testing phase and begin delivering Internet access to people around the world.

"The balloons are delivering 10x more bandwidth, 10x steer-ability, and are staying up 10x as long," Teller told Wired. "That's the kind of progress that can only happen a few more times until we're in a problematically good place."

Project Loon team members install a Loon Internet antenna while schoolchildren in Campo Maior look on. Google