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Google is about to test something secretive across all of the US

Photo: Pier Marco Tacca/ Getty.

Google appears to be planning to test its Project Loon Internet balloons across the entire United States, according to recent documents filed with the FCC.

The company has asked the FCC for a licence to test experimental radios that use wireless spectrum in the millimetre bandwidth in all 50 U.S. states and in Puerto Rico. Google said it wants to begin the tests on January 1, for a period of 24 months. 

The testing could indicate that Google is broadening its ambitions for providing consumers with Internet access through the special balloons developed in its secretive X labs.  

Project Loon is Google’s plan to operate a fleet of solar-powered balloons — flying at an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet — that are capable of beaming Internet access down to the earth. Google has described the project as a way to bring Internet access to people in developing economies and in regions of the world that lack communications infrastructure. 

In October, Google announced plans to conduct a country-wide test of Loon in Indonesia next year, in partnership with some of the country’s largest telecom companies. 

Google has previously said that it believes Loon’s “floating cell towers in the sky” could one day become a business that generates billions of dollars in revenue.

But given the project’s focus on serving underdeveloped regions of the world, it’s not clear why Google would want to test Loon across all of the U.S. The U.S. testing could simply be a way for Google to perfect the technology before rolling it out to other parts of the world, or it could signal that Google believes the balloons could be useful closer to home.

Google is also developing drones capable of delivering internet access, and plans to conduct air-to-ground communications tests at the Spaceport America facility in New Mexico and on an Indian reservation in Oregon. Google-rival Facebook is also testing drones and satellites capable of delivering Internet access.

All roads lead to Winnemucca

Google’s latest FCC filings are heavily redacted, and don’t mention Loon by name. But they contain a couple of clues that suggest that Google’s plan to test the experimental radio transmitters across the U.S. next year involve its Loon balloons.

The name of the applicant on the filing is Astro Teller, Google’s so-called Captain of Moonshots, who oversees the Google x labs that is working on Loon as well as projects such as self-driving cars and drones. 

More tellingly, the filing notes that Google’s latest request for an experimental licence is for continued development of previous tests in which the company also acquired experimental licenses from the FCC. According to the previous filings that Google references, those tests were conducted in Winnemucca, Nevada. 

Winnemucca is a remote town of roughly 7,000 in Nevada, whose attractions include a small brothel district known as the “The Line” and annual Basque festival, according to Wikipedia. But in August 2014, one month before Google’s first FCC request for a licence to test in Winnemucca, the published minutes of the Winnemucca city council contain a proposal to let Google use its airport industrial park as a “temporary balloon launching facility.”

The most recent Google FCC filings indicated that Google wants to use frequencies in the 71GHz to 76GHz range and in the 81GHz to 86GHz range. These so-called millimetre wave frequencies are ideal for transmitting large amounts of data, although they work best over short distances. That suggests that Google may be using the milimeter wave radios for balloon-to-balloon communications, while using LTE technology to beam the actual internet service back down to earth. 

We’ve reached to Google and will update the story if we hear back. 

Here’s a video of Project Loon balloons in action:


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