Just days before Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai is set to visit to India, the company’s ambitious project to provide internet access for all in the country is facing roadblocks from at least three ministries, including defence, civil and telecom.
Pichai, who is visiting India next week, is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Loon is likely to be one of the top discussions between the two.
Modi and Pichai had earlier discussed Project Loon during the former’s trip to Silicon Valley in September. Reports suggest that the Prime Minister’s Office is in fact directly monitoring the progress of Loon.
So, what exactly is Project Loon?
It is Google’s mission to provide internet access to rural and remote areas. It uses high-altitude balloons, 18 km from the ground, to create an aerial wireless network with up to 4G-LTE speeds transmitting as far as 40 kilometers in diameter.
It was named Project Loon is presumably short for loony since Google itself found the very idea of providing internet access to a population of 5 billion unprecedented and crazy.
How does the technology work?
Project Loon balloons float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather balloons. In the stratosphere, there are many strata of air, and each layer of has wind going in different directions at varying velocities.
According to Google, Loon balloons go where they’re needed by rising or descending into a stratum of air, blowing in the desired direction of travel.
“By partnering with telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum, we’ve enabled people to connect to the balloon network directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. The signal is then passed across the balloon network and back down to the global internet on Earth,” Google’s Loon team wrote on a post describing the project.
The project requires connectivity to work and hence needs a share of the spectrum in the 700 to 900 MHz bandwidth which is currently occupied by cellular network providers. India is pressed for spectrum availability and the cost of operation is very high in the country. If Loon enters the market, it will crowd the spectrum bandwidth and market.
Telecom operators are already facing issues with fixing incremental call drops, with the debate on the compensation rule for customers adding to their woes.
Union communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has also said that there are technical glitches in Loon. “The proposed frequency band to be used in the Loon Project of Google is being used for cellular operations in India and it will lead to interference with cellular transmissions,” he said in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha.
Other troubling matters
The civil aviation ministry is concerned that the balloons may interfere with flight paths, and wants to monitor these balloons via Air Traffic Control to avoid accidents. However, the home ministry has expressed security fears if these balloons can be used for surveillance.
A government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, claimed that several meetings have been held between Google and nodal officers of concerned ministries to resolve these issues, the Economic Times reported.
However, the spectrum sharing issue remains to be the most important roadblock in getting Loon up in the air.
What is Loon’s status in India?
Loon, like most other ‘Internet-for-all’ technologies is at the proposed pilot stage. According to government sources, it was given conditional clearance and is yet to take off as a pilot project. Clearance is conditional on all ministry concerns being resolved.
The discussions on Loon were last held in October and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, which is in charge of the proposal, is now awaiting Google’s response.
Where in the world is Loon active?
Although Google has not zeroed in on any location in India, it has been testing this technology in Brazil and New Zealand. Reportedly, a few Loon balloons have crashed in the US, New Zealand and South Africa but it hasn’t caused much damage.
Microsoft seems to be in a much better footing with the government than Facebook’s Internet.org or Google’s Loon. The company has come up with a new technology, which it calls TV-white spaces, that proposes to use low unused spectrum used by television earlier to provide internet connectivity to 5 lakh villages in the country.
Currently, the firm is running a pilot in Andhra Pradesh on the same.