Political issues, spying concerns could drag at Google's Project Loon

Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Project Loon, designed to bring airborne broadband service to rural and remote areas via balloons and ground-based cell towers, is just getting off the ground. However, its biggest obstacles may be geopolitical in nature and less on the technical side.

As GigaOM notes, the technology behind the proposed network is not exactly new, whether it is air-based transmitters or mesh networking technology. The bigger challenges will be getting various national governments and regulators to agree to support an international broadband network, as well as getting dedicated access from multiple countries to a harmonized spectrum band or unlicensed airwaves.

Additionally, in the wake of the leaks from Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency who has disclosed various U.S. surveillance operations, Google may need to work harder to assure the countries it is working with that the network is secure and won't be used for spying.

Google contends that, via Project Loon, it is feasible to deploy a ring of radio-equipped balloons to fly around the globe on stratospheric winds 12 miles above the earth and deliver Internet access at 3G or better speeds. Google envisions using the balloons to provide broadband not just in underserved areas but also as a communications option following natural disasters. Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area of about 25 miles.

Google has launched 30 balloons and initiated a pilot program in the Canterbury area of New Zealand with 50 testers. Further, Google hopes to set up pilots in countries at the same latitude as New Zealand and is seeking partners for the project's next phase. Other potential partners include Australia, South Africa and Argentina--Google hopes to use 300 to 400 balloons to complete that kind of a ring, but it says it is too early to think of covering the entire planet.

In a video, Google said its solar-powered balloons communicate with each other, specialized Internet antennas on the ground (e.g., at a residence) and a local ground station, which connects to an Internet service provider (ISP). The radios and antennas are designed to receive signals from Project Loon only, filtering out other signals. Project Loon currently uses unlicensed 2.4 and 5.8 GHz ISM bands.

As GigaOM notes, the balloons would link to each other to form a mesh network, bouncing signals off each other until they reached ground-based towers with fiber links. Google could control where the balloons float, but the vision is to eventually set them free use global stratospheric winds.

And therein lies the challenge. By making its network global, and by serving as the company providing the Internet access, Google will need to reach agreements with multiple regulators and possibly international bodies. That could affect how the service is offered, noted GigaOM

One other wrinkle that could crop up is foreign governments' suspicions of the network in the wake of the Snowden leaks. Recon Analytics analyst (and FierceWireless contributor) Roger Entner said foreign governments may want access to the network to be sure it is not used for espionage. "That will be very interesting, how the American government can alleviate the fears of foreign governments that basically their data is safe," he said.

Entner called Project Loon a "dream come true" for conspiracy theorists, worried that balloons floating overhead could be vacuuming up their communications. "I think technically it's not that big of a problem," he said, of the entire project. "But the after-effects of Snowden are just beginning to be felt."

For more:
- see this GigaOM article
- see this Forbes article

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