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Google weighed buying spectrum for Project Loon, but opted to rent its balloons to carriers instead

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Google(s goog) considered turning Project Loon into the world’s biggest mobile operator, buying spectrum around the globe, Google’s Astro Teller said at TechCrunch Disrupt on Tuesday. The idea was that Google would use a harmonized band to transmit its signals from its stratospheric balloon network down to terra firma.

But Larry Page nixed that idea, said Teller, whose official title at Google is Captain of Moonshots. Instead, Teller’s boss told him and his Google X team to find another way. And Teller now believes the plan Project Loon came up with is a far better one. Instead of owning its own spectrum, Project Loon will lease its network to carriers and ISPs as its balloons passes overhead. The networks will then transmit over those carrier partners’ licensed spectrum, Teller said.

The voyage of Loon balloon I-167 as it circumnavigates the globe (source: Google)
The voyage of Loon balloon I-167 as it circumnavigates the globe (source: Google)

The concept is a fascinating one because as I’ve written before, Project Loon will be a truly stateless network riding the atmospheric winds. The same balloon beaming down wireless connectivity down to rural Texas one day will be over Iran a few weeks later.

That means Google will use the same the same network to serve all countries, but as each balloon passes over national borders, not only will its capacity be passed from carrier to carrier, but also each balloon will retune itself to transmit over each carrier’s frequencies.

It’s an odd concept to wrap your head around, I admit. You can think of as a kind of mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) in reverse. Google is basically renting out its infrastructure and letting carriers hang their own spectrum onto it.

Loon is still a long way from becoming a commercial reality — if indeed it ever even becomes one — but the more we learn about it, the more we’re discovering it’s challenging every traditional notion of how the wireless internet operates.

6 Responses to “Google weighed buying spectrum for Project Loon, but opted to rent its balloons to carriers instead”

  1. Kevin Fitchard

    Hey Rafiki, you make a good point. If Google’s goal is overturn traditional carrier business models (which don’t focus on expanding coverage to remote areas) why just hand the network over to the carriers, right?

    I think, though, a traditional carrier set in its ways isn’t going to have anything to do with Loon. The ones that would be interested are the ones that are interested in disrupting the traditional carrier business model.

  2. Rafiki Cai

    I am SO sorely disappointed by this development. I, for one, do not equate carriers as enthusiastic agents of consumer value and benefit. In fact, whenever I hear the word carrier I see as synonymous with ‘gouge the consumer’ and ‘constrain true innovation’.

    It seems that google is always birthing ideas that could truly be revolutionary for consumers, but some how they always seem to end up handing over such resources to carriers.

    My view may be limited and biased even, but that’s how I see it.

  3. But if the carriers rent the ‘network’ from Google, how would the loon network be truly ‘stateless’? Can’t they have their own regional restrictions based on their local laws?

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Very good point, MGow. While the infrastructure would remain stateless, the individual networks formed by each ad hoc collection of balloons floating overhead wouldn’t be. They’d conform to the frequencies, usage restrictions, regulations and pricing plans of the carrier “renting” them.