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How Google’s Loon Balloon Internet Service Is Heading Into Space

Google parent Alphabet’s Loon unit, which offers wireless connectivity via high-altitude balloons, is going into space—or least some of its pioneering network software is going aloft.

On Thursday, Loon announced a partnership to develop a version of the programming it uses to coordinate communications among its balloons for Canadian satellite operator Telesat. Financial terms of the partnership were not disclosed.

While Telesat’s current space-based internet services come via traditional large satellites in geostationary orbit, the company is developing a new service that will rely on hundreds of smaller craft orbiting at a much lower altitude. Telesat’s vastly more complicated low-Earth satellite internet service requires the same kind communications among the craft that Loon developed to send data among its balloons and ground stations, the two companies said.

“Since our balloons move with the winds, their physical coordinates are constantly changing in relation to the ground, each other, and you,” Loon’s Head of Engineering Sal Candido explained in a blog post. “The synergy between balloons and non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellites comes from a shared characteristic — both are in constant motion relative to the Earth and one another. Because of that motion, the network challenges present in Loon’s internet balloon system will also be present for future NGSO communications satellites.”

The Telesat network aims to launch 292 satellites to get started and could go as high as 512 spacecraft, says vice president Erwin Hudson, who oversees the project. Without getting too specific, the entire project will be a “multi-billion dollar investment” with the goal of starting commercial service in 2022, he said.

While Telesat’s network could take years to build, it faces competition from a host of other players with similar plans. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is planing a service called Starlink with thousands of low orbiting satellites, which is similar to OneWeb backed by Japanese billionaire ­Masayoshi Son’s ­SoftBank Group. They’re pitted against dozens of small satellite upstarts like Swarm Technologies, Astrocast, and Sky and Space Global. Plus the major established space Internet services from Viasat (VSAT) and EchoStar’s Hughes Network Systems plan to launch even more capable large communications satellites of their own.

The aim of all of the new services is to help connect people in developing countries, provide speedier online access to mainly rural users who depend on today’s slower and more expensive satellite Internet services, and cater to business customers that want real-time data from their equipment, like oil rigs and ocean buoys.

The new partnership comes about six months after Alphabet (GOOGL) shifted Loon from being part of the more experimental R&D unit X, where its first tests date back to 2011, to being a standalone company seeking to grow on its own.

Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth has said he plans mainly to partner with mobile carriers around the world, instead of launching services under Loon’s own brand. For example, Loon is partnering with Telekom Kenya to help the African carrier extend its reach to central sections of the country that lack reliable communications connections. Loon also assisted AT&T in Puerto Rico to reconnect customers after Hurricane Maria.

(This story was updated on January 31 with additional details from Telesat about their plans.)