A year on from firing up its first wi-fi balloons in New Zealand, Google has flown its first LTE-equipped balloons in a remote town in Brazil.
Project Loon may have been overshadowed by Google's more recent $500m aerial manoeuvre and speculation it will launch a constellation of satellites. But the project which started in New Zealand nearly a year ago and aims to deliver broadband to underserved parts of the world is making progress.
Google announced on Monday it had launched an LTE-equipped balloon on the rural outskirts of Campo Maior in the north east of Brazil, connecting a local school Linoca Gayoso to the internet for the first time.
The community currently doesn't have a broadband or mobile service, which means locals rely on a few locations where a weak mobile signal can be found — including up in trees or next to soccer goalposts.
The addition of LTE to the balloons brings several benefits, according to Google. Markets where 4G LTE has launched know it for higher speed mobile broadband, but in Loon it serves a different purpose. It could allow Google to provide an internet signal directly to mobile phones as well as deliver services over longer distances than wi-fi.
(The radios used in Google's New Zealand launch operated on unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz bands used in wi-fi.)
The other benefit of LTE is that carriers are already using it on their networks. "This means that when Loon partners with telcos to deliver last-mile connectivity, we will be able to use the telecommunications companies' existing infrastructure, which will allow us to deliver service to rural and remote users seamlessly and quickly," Google said.
In its Brazilian LTE Loon trial, Google worked with two local operators — Vivo and Telebrás — to essentially extend the reach of their respective 3G and backhaul networks.
"Working with both partners allowed the team to confirm that Loon could extend LTE coverage from a 3G wireless zone or from a fibre backbone," Google said.
Google said its intent since launching the first balloons was to find partners and says its New Zealand launch was supported by Vodafone NZ.
Before the project launched, the Loon team were actually planning to buy spectrum for itself, "Captain of Moonshots" Astro Teller told Tech Crunch Disrupt earlier this year.
However, Teller said that Google CEO Larry Page wouldn't allow it, in part because it would have sparked fears that Google was "invading" the country where it launched.
The Brazilian LTE Loon trial comes after Google applied to the US communications regulator to test Loon in North Nevada using spectrum designated for LTE services. Earlier this month one of the Loon balloons, likely launched from Nevada, crashed in a remote part of Washington State, cutting a power line.