Cellphone users on Vancouver Island's rugged southwest coast might have found themselves unexpectedly connected to the internet Friday afternoon thanks to a solar-powered hot air balloon hovering 16 kilometres overhead.
The experimental balloon is one of several belonging to Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, which describes them as "floating cell towers" that fly near the edge of space.
"Customers will not necessarily know they are connected to a Loon balloon, aside from the fact that they may receive a signal in a location where one did not previously exist," Loon says of the project, which was designed to bring internet and cellular connectivity to regions of the world that lack ground-based infrastructure.
But it's a description that fits with the region around Port Renfrew and Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park too, where the balloon was tracked overhead between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Friday, according to online flight-tracking software.
Cellphone service in that region of the island is spotty to non-existent for most. For others, cellphones intermittently connect to American cellular providers across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. During the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting to U.S. cellular towers across the water prompts text message warnings from the Canadian government saying, "All travellers returning to Canada must self-isolate for 14 days."
The stratospheric balloons use computers to read wind patterns and geographical location and keep the balloons in place with fans.
Late last month, a Loon balloon fell into the dense jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo, leading to confusion among local authorities who detained two people for questioning until the company confirmed the device was an internet balloon, according to Reuters.
The balloon that flew over Vancouver Island Friday was tracked over Mexico earlier in the week, and over the Caribbean territory of Anguilla the week prior, according to FlightAware.com.
The balloons typically fly between 18 and 23 kilometres above the Earth's surface, and can remain airborne for up to 200 days, according to the company.