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Project Loon isn’t so loony, according to the latest Google video about the project. In it, Mike Cassidy, the Project Loon team lead, said that they’ve figured out how to scale up from single test launches in New Zealand and California to dozens of launches a day, supported by a manufacturing facility that can turn out the thousands of balloons they need.
The idea is to float high-altitude balloons equipped with LTE mobile phone technology in the stratosphere, and steer them into a usable telecoms constellation by varying the altitude. One recent benchmark was figuring out how to keep the balloons reliably flying for more than 100 days.
Google plans to work with terrestrial mobile broadband companies. The video features an interview with Tony Baird, Vodafone New Zealand’s technology director. He talks about how Project Loon will be integrated into their existing network.
That’s a good clue to what kind of bandwidth and capability Project Loon brings to the table. Vodafone NZ has pretty good LTE coverage in major cities, tourist areas and along main roads. You get deep into farm country or take off into the bush, and service can be spotty. If Project Loon is designed to backfill difficult nooks and crannies and very low population density areas for mobile carriers, it doesn’t need a ton of bandwidth to be useful. It’s one thing to build a system that provides universal service over a wide area, it’s quite another – and much more doable – to plug gaps in a full service, nearly full coverage network.
Google’s end game might be more ambitious, but it seems its immediate aim is to get a usefully limited balloon-based system up and running. That goal seems to be in reach.