Now the Loon team has learned how to control the balloons much more accurately, to the point that they can assemble only a small cluster over a certain area. This makes it possible for the Loon data relay systems to stay where they’re needed for long periods of time so users on the ground can access the wireless service more reliably.
At this point the Loon service is available to AT&T customers with LTE phones. Those customers will see the familiar AT&T information at the top of their phone screens. However the service provided by Loon will only provide data calls, including text messages, limited web browsing, email and the like. Those customers won’t be able to tell initially whether the signal they’re seeing comes from a cell tower or a balloon.
It’s not clear when the Loon team plans to begin launching balloons from Puerto Rico, however the team at X is already distributing photos of the first Project Loon facility in Puerto Rico. A launch site there would shorten the time it takes to get additional balloons into service, because they wouldn’t have to fly the balloons over from Nevada.
However, at this point the Loon team is still learning what the balloons can do and where they need to provide effective service. Currently the plan is for the balloons to provide basic services to portions of Puerto Rico where there’s no other service.
Each balloon can cover a total area equal to about half the area of the island. Because the balloons move around several will be needed to make sure that there’s always one available where it’s needed.
Astro Teller, captain of moonshots for X, said in his blog that the Loon team was prepared for it to fail. “It’s still a surprise to many of us that Loon is looking as promising as it is; for years, the team focused their efforts on proving that Loon wouldn’t work. Even the Project name tells you that our mindset when we got started was more ‘worth a shot’ rather than ‘this could work.’ Yet with each passing year, we keep finding the next steps on the path to making balloon-powered Internet a reality.”
As each stumbling block appeared, the team found a way to overcome it. As Teller said in his blog, “if we’d known how hard it was going to be, we probably never would have tried.” Fortunately for the people of Puerto Rico, they tried.