Google tries a loony project in Central Valley

mrowland@modbee.comAugust 23, 2013 

Google Internet Balloon

In this June 10, 2013 photo released by Jon Shenk, a Google balloon sails through the air with the Southern Alps mountains in the background, in Tekapo, New Zealand. Google is testing the balloons which sail in the stratosphere and beam the Internet to Earth. (AP Photo/ Jon Shenk) EDITORIAL USE ONLY

JON SHENK — AP

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textMarijke Rowland
    Title: Arts & Entertainment Writer
    Coverage areas: Fine arts, pop culture and other entertainment throughout the Central Valley and foothills.
    Bio: Marijke Rowland has been a reporter at The Bee for 15 years. She grew up in the Midwest and has a degree in journalism from Indiana University. She has covered several beats at The Bee from education to entertainment to employment.
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    E-mail: mrowland@modbee.com

— Google has gone looney for the Central Valley.

Area residents were invited to take part in a test of Project Loon, Google's fledgling balloon-powered Internet program, this week. The internationally recognized Internet services and products company is launching a trial in the valley and asked for residents of Madera, Chowchilla, Mariposa, Merced and Turlock to take part.

A post went up on the Project Loon Google+ page on Tuesday of this week asking for applicants and by Thursday the group had received enough interest to take its submission survey offline.

Google first unveiled Project Loon to the public in June. The concept is to use high-altitude balloons to bring Internet service to people in rural and remote areas. The balloons could also be used to provide service in times of disaster if traditional providers were disrupted.

The experimental project first lifted off in the Canterbury area of New Zealand this past June with some 30 high-altitude balloons and 50 testers on the ground.

For its first-known California pilot, Google said it was looking for valley residents willing to have a Project Loon antenna installed on their home or small business. The antennas consist of a small custom-designed receiver, fitted with a whimsical red balloon-shaped cover.

The technology site Ars Technica reports that the Central Valley tests will begin in August and run through the end of the year. Google officials could not be reach for comment.

In its invite, Google said that participants would "help test the strength of the Loon Internet connection." As the balloons fly overhead, the ground antennas will record traffic and test-load the service.

On Aug. 8, Google posted about its first test flights over the Central Valley. Since returning from its New Zealand test, researches have flown a series of test flights over the Central Valley.

"The purpose of these flights is to allow us to research various approaches for improving the technology, like the power systems (solar panel orientation and batteries), envelope design, and radio configuration," Team Loon members wrote on Google+. "We'll be doing a series of posts on what we learn from these flights, and how the technology develops as a result."

One of its most recent research flights was over Fresno, to determine how traveling over an area with busy radio signals affected its transmission.

Project Loon balloons are are solar-powered and designed to travel into the stratosphere and be controlled on the ground by Google engineers using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. The signal goes from balloon-to-balloon, creating and aerial Wi-Fi network.

"We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides Internet access to the earth below," wrote Project Loon Team Leader Mike Cassidy on the official Google blog. "It's very early days, but we've built a system that uses balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, to beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today's 3G networks or faster."

Turlock Assistant to the City Manager for Housing and Economic Development Maryn Pitt said Google had not contacted city officials about its impending Project Loon testing in the area. But the city has participated in the past in other Google research projects.

"This Project Loon is new technology. I understand from reading information about it that our area was picked because it doesn't have the air traffic issues, is flat and lends itself to that sort of test," Pitt said. "I think it's great to be included in anything that's cutting-edge technology."

For more on Project Loon visit www.google.com/loon.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on www.twitter.com/ turlocknow.

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