Politics, paranoia pose problems for Project Loon

June 27th, 2013 by · Leave a Comment

This article was authored by John C. Tanner, and was originally posted on telecomasia.net.

Last week, Google announced Project Loon, its grand experiment to build a global ring of hot-air balloons serving as relays for Internet connectivity in the underserved areas of the world. Trials are underway in New Zealand, and Karim Temsamani, head of Asia-Pacific at Google, even highlighted Project Loon during his visionary address at CommunicAsia.

Perhaps inevitably, the biggest barrier to the project isn’t the technology, the cost, the plausibility or even the weather: it’s politics.

Part of that has to do with the usual hassles you’d expect in just getting the regulatory approval and spectrum clearance to have a ring of balloons linked by wireless mesh across various countries, let alone offer services, notes GigaOm:

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.

Also, as Forbes points out, there’s the usual content regulations that Google will have to comply with.

Granted, Google was quite likely aware of such challenges (especially content restrictions) when it came up with Project Loon. But there’s one other potential issue that has arisen that Google probably didn’t bank on: Edward Snowden’s leakage of NSA internet surveillance hijinks, and the political fallout therein.

As the Snowden/NSA saga unfolds, one result is likely to be increased suspicion by governments of things like, say, networked balloons drifting around in their airspace transmitting data, reports FierceWireless:

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.”

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