24 Comments

Summary:

Mesh networking and dirigibles have been around for decades. What truly makes Project Loon a difficult — if not impossible — undertaking is getting the world’s governments to agree to it.

The balloon-powered network known as Loon may be one of Google’s famed moon shots, but the biggest issues facing the project are grounded right here on Earth. This won’t just be a major technological feat for Google. It will be a huge political undertaking. I give Google credit: it’s never shied away from a challenge. But if Loon is going to be a success, it’s going to have to wade deeply into the morass of global international relations.

I say this because Loon is no ordinary network – and I’m not referring to the balloons. Google wants to build a network that knows no borders. Not only does Google want to implement it in every country with an underserved internet population, but the network itself will be stateless, coasting from continent to continent.

Project Loon

Loon would basically become an internet service provider above the clouds. Terrestrial radios on the ground would link to solar-powered balloons floating 12 miles up in the stratosphere. These balloons would link to each other to form a mesh network, bouncing signals off one another until they reach a ground-based station with a fiber connection to the internet. Google will have some control over where these balloons go by navigating the wind currents, but as Google shows in its Loon videos, its eventual plan is to set them loose in the sky, letting them follow the west-east stratospheric winds around the world.

“If the balloons are circling over the bottom half of the world, eventually the balloon that’s over South Africa will pass over South America,” Google captain of moonshots Astro Teller explained in one such video.

Old Globe

Well, Iran happens to be at the same latitude as Texas. The same network infrastructure floating over the U.S. will make its way above Middle Eastern countries with which the U.S. isn’t exactly on the best terms. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. The internet should transcend international boundaries, and it does more to help international relations than it does harm. But I doubt every world leader will see that way.

Since Loon will use radios, it will have to use spectrum, which is tightly regulated by the world’s governments. It can’t just use any old spectrum either. It will have to convince hundreds of different regulators to agree on a unified band or ride over an existing one – such as the unlicensed airwaves used for Wi-Fi. But the scope and range of Google’s Loon network will likely require dedicated airwaves. Just imagine a Wi-Fi network blasting down at high-power from the heavens. If your wireless router is using the same airwaves, it will be drowned out.

And we’re not talking about a scenario as simple as Wi-Fi, where airwaves are ultimately shared by multiple entities. We’re talking about Google becoming a global ISP, actually providing or selling internet service. ISPs, like any communications service provider, are regulated, and governments will likely want some say in how that access is offered, what Google can charge, and ultimately whom Google is allowed to connect.

Go, go Google

I’m sure Google has weighed all of these potential obstacles, and that makes its willingness to push ahead all the more admirable and daring (or all the more crazy, depending on how you look at it).

I’m certainly not saying Google can’t accomplish its goal. Google has dealt plenty with regulators and governments in the past, and it has already cut its teeth in the international spectrum arena by working with governments on white space broadband.

The Iridium Next satellite constellation

The Iridium Next satellite constellation

There’s also a precedent for truly global communications providers, namely the satellite networks that traverse the heavens. Loon is very similar to the low-Earth orbit satellite constellations built by Iridium and Globalstar(gsat) and uses the same mesh-networking principles. Those birds zip over the globe just above the atmosphere and ignore international borders. The main difference is that Google’s balloons are surfing the atmospheric wind currents, while Iridium and Globalstar are riding the Earth’s gravitational pull.

But space is still an open frontier, loosely regulated by international treaties.  Most governments consider the stratosphere above them their sovereign airspace, which is why they shoot down spy planes that venture into it.

Earlier today, I participated in a panel discussion about the feasibility of Loon on HuffPost Live, in which the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York raised a telling question: How long before some unstable government seeking to wreak havoc on its world’s communications infrastructure starts shooting down Loon balloons overhead?

A United Nations of broadband

Google might opt to keep the network limited. It has some control of the movements of the balloons. It can increase or decrease their altitude, catching cross currents. It could feasibly keep the Loon gird centered over specific countries by letting the balloons track back and forth. But Google’s ultimate goal seems to be to let them float free blanketing the world in constantly shifting floating mesh.

Google HQ

Loon is truly a noble project, and, sure, Google has profit motive in connecting billions more people to the internet. But this is how technology and communications revolutions are born – one company with a crazy idea for a network and the wherewithal and resources to implement it.

Technology isn’t a barrier. Mesh networks are nothing new, and dirigibles have been around since the time of Graf Zeppelin. The minefield here is entirely political. With every fiber of my being I want Project Loon to succeed, and I’m actually fairly in awe of Google for having the chutzpah to attempt it. But part of me also believes that Google’s Project Loon’s evangelists were perhaps a bit too idealistic in their high-school model U.N. classes.

Globe photo courtesy of Flickr user ToastyKen Google HQ photo courtesy Flickr user Affiliate

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. InnovationzSquared² Saturday, June 22, 2013

    Reblogged this on INNOVATIONZ SQUARED² and commented:
    Everyday presents a new obstacle to hurdle over and even with an entity as vast as Google. It seems even they have to descend the ranks and walk amongst the little guys to accomplish this one big feat!

  2. And it will be Google that creates the interplanetary internet in a hundred years or so using some sort of bundling or DTN protocols.

    1. Hey Tony,

      I am waiting on the day that a SpaceX Falcon launches GoogleSat 1 into orbit :)

  3. > Since Loon will use radios, it will have to use spectrum, which is tightly regulated by the world’s governments.

    Sure, but Google can just have the balloons turn off their radios when flying over a country with whom a spectrum agreement hasn’t been reached.

  4. interscapeusa Saturday, June 22, 2013

    Profit has nothing to do with this, and it is not altruistic either. Google’s stated goal is to index all of the world’s information. If they provide connectivity to places that don’t have it at all, then all of that information will go over their equipment. Google has already been busted indexing private info from Google StreetView cars, don’t think they won’t do it again. That is what Google Fiber is all about, and that’s what Loon is about too… and Loon is exactly what you are if you trust them.

    1. Well, you are trusting SOMEONE with your data if you are using the Internets e.g. your ISP and all the other companies along the way, responsible for the web infrastructure.
      Why not Google?

      1. @Gloria:
        Because unlike to your ISP, there is no contract between Google and you (as a customer).
        So you can’t attack Google as easily as your ISP.
        Google is in the same hegemonic position than Microsoft or Apple before.
        And each time one company is in this situation, they believe they are masters of the world.

    2. I share the same opinion the first time i heard about this, it smells like monopoly to me more than whatever noble cause they “say”.

      This project is much too sophisticated if their original intentions was only about kids in africa and internets.

      I’m not into conspiration, but i think this is clear as day and simply believing their cause would be just too naive.

  5. There’s only one way to find out, and that is by trying.

    Which is exactly what Google is doing.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly, Saidimu. Here’s to hoping Google’s diplomats are as innovative as its engineers.

  6. “such as the unlicensed airwaves used for Wi-Fi. But the scope and range of Google’s Loon network will likely require dedicated airwaves. Just imagine a Wi-Fi network blasting down at high-power from the heavens. If your wireless router is using the same airwaves, it will be drowned out.”

    This isn’t particularly true; unless Google is toying with alien technology, the balloons aren’t going to be that high-powered, being powered by the sun. Instead, Google will undoubtedly be utilising advances in computing and signals processing to transmit at low powers and high efficiencies.

  7. “such as the unlicensed airwaves used for Wi-Fi. But the scope and range of Google’s Loon network will likely require dedicated airwaves. Just imagine a Wi-Fi network blasting down at high-power from the heavens. If your wireless router is using the same airwaves, it will be drowned out.”

    This won’t be an issue – unless Google is utilising some alien technology, it’s only going to be broadcasting with what it can gather via it’s solar panels, which simply means that Google’s using recent advances in signals processing and computing to transmit a low-powers and high efficiencies; nothing that would interfere with mains-powered routers and modems.

  8. Steve Intheukok Sunday, June 23, 2013

    “Just imagine a Wi-Fi network blasting down at high-power from the heavens. If your wireless router is using the same airwaves, it will be drowned out.” – HUH?! These will be low power and I would severely doubt they would knock out anything on the ground. Its akin to satellite technology…just lower. Someone got carried away with themselves when writing!-Talk about scaremongering!

    1. Hi Steve,

      I think you may be misinterpreting my point, or maybe I just wasn’t clear enough. I’m not saying Google is going to knock out anyone’s radio signal. I’m using Wi-Fi interference as an example about why Google would need a dedicated spectrum band for Loon. The analogy is one that I think many non-networking people understand because we’ve all been experienced crowded Wi-Fi airwaves before. You’re right: Loon is akin to satellite technology, but satellite has its own spectrum bands.

      1. Kevin,

        Google is, as stated, using dedicated spectrum for these test flights. They are doing that because their balloons have small antennae. As you fear, small antennae cannot distinguish many WiFi devices from 20-40 km away, and cannot pick up enough signal power to receive a standard bitstream.

        But that doesn’t mean WiFi from balloon can’t be done. It just means that it needs larger antennae on the balloon. 802.11ac from 40 km to a cellphone-type device would require a 6 meter diameter antennae. That’s right on the edge, so a bigger antennae would be better. This is not an unreasonable size.

        There are other challenges. I agree with you that the political challenges seem to be the worst. More here: http://ambivalentengineer.blogspot.com/2013/06/project-loon.html

  9. truth4oz.blogspot.com Monday, June 24, 2013

    Most people would be unaware that Google, prior to it’s launch in about 1997 was actually a highly top secret Project Name at the NSA. The project has since been rolled out as a national and international spy grid. I welcome anyone to research it and prove me wrong. With the recent PRISM scandal Google are undeterred from their mission. They still have abnormally close ties to the government (NSA and DARPA) and have been fined and found guilty of unethical and illegal business conduct on countless of occasions, despite selling their touchy-feely beanbag office approach to everyone.

    This company/division is hard-core and Project Loon is just code for their ultimate goal, a global spy grid that puts PRISM to shame. The only thing stopping them as read in the article is governments. I implore you to guess which ones? It won’t be the UK, Australia, France, Canada etc. as they’re already under globalist control, it will be countries like Iran, Pakistan, Brazil etc. Just wait for more illegal wars and invasions so that as well as making money off the rebuilding, they can then install governments who will happily sign onto Project Loon.

    1. and suppose this project is stopped halfway, it only means their current cause is yet to be justified. They will try again, perhaps in a more sneaky way next time.

      someone should know there is an interest group trying to achieve total control over the flow of information (most likely connected to idk what government)

      we should all learn from this, be wiser

  10. Check http://www.cramnet.net, I had similar idea but could not implement due to lack of funding. The reporter is right in saying
    “But this is how technology and communications revolutions are born – one company with a crazy idea for a network and the wherewithal and resources to implement it”
    I had a crazy idea but not the resource to implement it. I wish google all the best and would like to offer any support. After all my idea was not to make money but to offer internet for free to the under privileged.

Comments have been disabled for this post