Google is to partner with Australian operator Telstra on Project Loon, its research initiative into using helium-filled balloons to provide internet connectivity to unconnected regions.
Australian Associated Press reported that 20 test balloons carrying solar-powered transmitters will be launched over Queensland in December.
The balloons will beam LTE signals to homes and phones 20km below, with Telstra providing the base stations to communicate with the balloons.
The Australian project comes after initial trials over Christchurch in New Zealand in June 2013. Google said that the stratospheric conditions in that part of the globe are favourable to testing the technology.
It was reported in May that Google planned to partner with mobile operators to make Project Loon into a reality. Astro Teller, who oversees the Google X team behind Loon, was quoted as saying at the time that the plan is for Google to lease the balloons to operators as they pass over the regions in which they operate.
The eventual aim is to have a network of balloons circling the earth to provide internet access to the two-thirds of the world’s population currently without access to the internet.
The technology could also potentially be used to provide coverage for areas struck by natural disasters where the ground-based infrastructure is damaged.
It has previously been reported that Google plans to invest more than $1 billion to create a fleet of satellites that will be used to extend internet access to regions without fixed networks.
In April, the company agreed to acquire Titan Aerospace, a start-up developing solar-powered drones, whose expertise is likely to feed into Project Loon as well as the Makani project, which is developing an airborne wind turbine for generating electricity.
Fellow web giant Facebook is also investing in ways to make the internet available and affordable to unconnected people around the world with its Internet.org initiative.
In March, the company said it was working on drones and satellite technology to develop “new platforms for connectivity on the ground, in the air and in orbit”, as part of the efforts. This included the $20 million acquisition of UK-based drone specialist Ascenta.
In an interview with Mobile World Live in July, Ulf Ewaldsson, CTO of infrastructure provider Ericsson, brushed aside talk of balloons and drones to extend internet connectivity within emerging markets as more fantasy than reality.
And in October, Marcus Weldon, Alcatel-Lucent CTO and president of Bell Labs – Alcatel-Lucent’s R&D arm, described alternative solutions for network coverage, such as drones and balloons, as “not real infrastructure”.