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Google's Loons to Glide Over India

By Peter Suciu
Mar 8, 2016 5:00 AM PT

Google has been in talks with telecom service providers in India to bring its Project Loon to the subcontinent, Rajan Anandan, Google's managing director for Southeast Asia and India, said in an interview published Monday in The Economic Times.

The project would deliver Internet access via balloons floating thousands of feet in the air.

It is Google's latest effort to bring Internet access to remote parts of Asia. Last year, parent company Alphabet announced that it had signed agreements with mobile network operators in Indonesia to test the service later this year. The project was launched in 2014, when it was reported that the company was investing at least US$1 billion in efforts to deliver Internet access to remote areas.

Google also unveiled a project last year to provide high-speed public WiFi at 400 train stations in India. The first of those went online in January. It plans to deploy 99 more by the end of this year.

Internet to Remote Areas

The company's efforts to partner with local telecom companies could give it an advantage in reaching remote areas via its high-flying balloons.

"Google's Project Loon is simply about extending access reach for LTE-based services, in partnership with phone companies and Internet service providers," said Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"Project Loon aims to cover large areas of sparsely populated land -- with large aggregate populations -- at a fraction of the cost of building out ground-based infrastructure in remote areas," he told the E-Commerce Times.

However, it's not meant for densely populated, which already are covered by cellular networks and broadband infrastructure.

"It is about reaching closer to 100 percent coverage of the human population outside of densely populated areas that are already well-served," added Teich.

Tech Issues

Google will have to ensure that Project Loon can address significant tech issues as well as reliability.

"There are a few key components -- the balloons' operational altitude [of] 20 km/12.4 miles, intelligent control of balloon altitude to change direction, and detailed maps of wind patterns at altitude, presumably driven by the number of active access point balloons, ground-based sensors, etc.," noted Teich.

"Each balloon can serve as an access point for anyone on the ground in an 80-km/50-mile radius of the balloon," he added. "Severe weather like hurricanes sometimes extend up into the 20- to 23-km altitude range, so we'll see how that plays out, but the 80-km access radius should help cover folks in the middle of severe weather without subjecting the balloons to that weather."

Open vs. Closed Systems

Google isn't alone in attempting to utilize high-flying device delivery of the Internet.

Facebook has announced efforts to utilize AMOS-6 satellites as the backbone of a dedicated system to deliver broadband-level connectivity to sub-Saharan Africa. It also has unveiled plans to use drones to deliver Internet access to those in remote areas.

The companies' approaches are different and not just in the delivery methods.

"The difference is that Google will give access to the entire Internet," said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.

"Google makes money on the entire Internet with its advertising empire. Facebook just makes money on Facebook," he told the E-Commerce Times.

"In the end, it's the companies' attempt to expand their customer numbers in a financially reasonable way" and it will result in more people having access to some or all of the Internet, Entner added.

"Google's project is no more altruistic that Facebook's. Google will have better chances than Facebook because it's working more closely with the government," he said.

Free Fall

Google's efforts could soar where Facebook took off like a lead balloon for other reasons.

"The problems with Facebook's Free Basics was that it violated the basic tenets of the Internet by violating net neutrality with prioritized sponsored content," said Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"While this may have made more business sense to Facebook, it creates a two-tiered Internet access that was not acceptable by Indian regulators," he told the E-Commerce Times.

"Facebook's Free Basics seemed more about offering a free or low-cost service to people who already had access, and perhaps using the service to help carriers drive additional access reach," added Teich.

As a result, Free Basics wasn't explicitly about building new and different infrastructure to extend Internet access reach.

"Google should learn from that failure and focus on ubiquitous Internet access and working within the existing Indian telecom industry," noted Krewell. "Hopefully they can build a business model that is sustainable and acceptable to Indian regulators who work closely with the carriers."

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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