A few hundred kilometers south of the Brazilian border and four and a half hours by bus from the capital of Montevideo lie Lavalleja and Treinta y Tres, rural departments in Uruguay’s bucolic interior. There, amid the thigh-high thistle and ombú trees that punctuate the undulating pampas, flightless ñandú birds sprint across the horizon, and mini-armadillos bumble around their burrows, oblivious to observers. With its unobstructed views, this wide-open landscape is perfectly suited for gauchos, the South American cowboys renowned for their resourcefulness. The dearth of trees, motor vehicles, and air traffic also makes the region an ideal landing zone for another, nonnative species: floating cell towers held aloft by giant helium balloons.
Occasionally, one of these space-age hot spots will appear above the pampas on their descent back to earth after completing its latest mission over the Amazon, Puerto Rico, or Brazil. They are part of Loon, an initiative launched by Google X (and now overseen by Alphabet) that aims to expand LTE coverage to remote areas of the world through a clustered network of balloons. At any given time, 30 to 50 Loons are sailing the winds of the stratosphere, “beaming down” coverage to subscribers within a 120-kilometer diameter on the ground.
Since the project’s launch as a research and development initiative in 2013, it has basked in glowing press coverage. When it became an independent company in 2018, the focus shifted toward turning it into a sustainable business, according to a company spokesman. But despite encouraging progress — including agreements with telecommunication giants to provide cell service in parts of Africa and South America, a partnership with AT&T to offer connectivity during disasters, and a commercial deal with Telesat to adopt Loon technology to power the next generation of global communications satellites — it has yet to turn a profit. Moreover, there’s no comprehensive data publicly available about how many people actually use the balloons. And so, when it comes to measuring impact, creative metrics are needed.
As Loons are constantly moving, ensuring continuous coverage and network resiliency requires a kind of ballet. This sophisticated dance is choreographed by a proprietary software system that predicts and accounts for balloon movement, obstructions, and weather events. By increasing or decreasing the height of a Loon in accordance with wind currents, the system can keep each balloon corralled within a cluster or send it where its services are needed. When a user’s phone leaves Loon’s cone of coverage, or when a Loon drifts out of reach of a device, the signal is handed off to another balloon in the network. And when the balloons are ready to be retired (usually within a few hundred days of their deployment), engineers direct them to a landing zone, where they can determine where they will touch down within a range of several dozen kilometers. But in the earlier days, those predictions weren’t quite so accurate.
One instance of a Loon landing going awry took place in January 2017, when two balloons dropped down into the pampas. One ended up on a remote ranch in the Lavalleja department; the other landed 150 kilometers north on Estancia Los Plátanos, a 340-hectare dude ranch owned by Marina Cantera and her husband, Andrés Noblia, who were promptly hired to collect and return them. After retrieving the one on their property, they went off for the other — and soon ran into trouble. Even though Andrés and Marina had official paperwork, an associate of the owner’s land insisted that the Uruguayan military had instructed him to protect it until they could come get it themselves.
Andrés alerted Loon, and within hours, an Air Force helicopter was setting down on the family’s front lawn. As one of the officers corroborated the family’s account, the 23-year-old pilot, Kevin Armstrong, invited members of the family, including their 17-year-old daughter Micaela, to have their photo taken with the helicopter. Because the image was on his phone, he asked Micaela for her Instagram handle so he could share it with her.
While the cutting-edge technology required to deliver cell service from space balloons has energized the conversation around internet connectivity, the business model behind it has been attacked over issues of access. Since first connecting a New Zealand sheep farmer to the internet in 2013, Loon claims that its technology has been used to bring 300,000 people across the globe online. When Hurricane Maria wiped out terrestrial communications infrastructure in Puerto Rico in 2017, the company teamed up with AT&T and T-Mobile to provide emergency connectivity on the island for several months. When a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck the Peruvian Amazon in May 2019, Loon partnered with Telefónica to provide service to the region. And even in the absence of a crisis, the company routinely partners with regional telecommunications firms to support their existing terrestrial networks.
This model has given many casual observers the mistaken impression that the company is providing free internet to the as-of-yet unconnected masses. But that’s not the case. “What we’re doing is taking balloons that can talk to a ground station where the internet exists today, beaming it up to one balloon, and that balloon can beam it to other balloons in the network,” explained Nick Kohli, senior manager of Global Operations for Loon. In effect, the company is amplifying the reach of telecommunications giants such as AT&T, Vodafone, and Telkom Kenya. In turn, critics say that Loon is helping these companies exert control over which communities get internet access, what kind of coverage they get, how much they pay for it, and what kind of data users have to turn over in exchange for that coverage. Once connected, these clients pay for internet, just like anybody else.
In areas where internet connectivity is still fragile, the concern is that this business model could further compromise privacy rights and slow-walk the democratization of information access. According to Preston Rhea, director of engineering and public policy for Monkeybrains, the practice of beaming down LTE connectivity from on high disincentivizes the installation of fiber optic cable, a medium that provides significantly stronger and more stable connections. When it comes to capacity and reliability, “There is no replacement for fiber as permanent transmission infrastructure,” he said, adding, “There will not be a replacement in our lifetimes.” But Kohli, the global operations manager at Loon, says that the company isn’t aiming to replace existing old-school networks. “We’re not saying Loon is the only way that people should connect to LTE,” he explains. “There are always going to be other technologies, whether that be a satellite or a fiber cable or anything else.”
Ironically, even though Uruguay is a landing spot for Loons, the country doesn’t use or need them. According to a government press release from December 2019, 85% of households throughout the country have fixed broadband access, and within that number, 75% have fiber optic access. Even the Lavalleja and Treinta y Tres departments are 97% and 96% covered by 4G LTE networks. “One of the great things about Uruguay is that free Wi-Fi is available everywhere,” says Karen Higgs, a writer who has been living in the country for more than two decades. “Even local buses have Wi-Fi. Check the list of available networks on any Montevideo street, and you’ll see buses with their respective numbers appearing and disappearing.”
Years after that balloon first landed on his lawn, Andrés received a series of voice messages from a colleague who had set off with a friend in a pickup truck to retrieve a downed unit. After driving off-road for a few hours, they finally located it. By that point, however, it was raining hard, and the massive balloon was filled with water. If they couldn’t drain the balloon before dark, they would be forced to spend the night in the truck since they hadn’t brought camping equipment. Or food. Or drinking water. Recalling each revelation, Andrés guffawed. Ultimately, the men were able to wrangle the Loon into the back of the truck before nightfall and head back home. That week, they safely delivered it to a secret location.
Andrés and Marina have recovered nearly a dozen Loons since 2017, but the first one left the most lasting impression on their family. In 2019, after two years of receiving friendly messages from Kevin, the helicopter pilot, Andrés’ daughter Micaela had agreed to join him for a late-evening beer in Montevideo. He picked her up more than an hour late, embarrassed and apologizing profusely for having fallen asleep. Micaela was not having it and wanted to call it a night. But Kevin persisted, and she agreed to talk with him for five minutes in her doorway. That turned into an all-night conversation, which turned into a relationship that has lasted for nearly two years. Apparently, even a wayward, decommissioned Loon can produce a stable connection.