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Project Loon: Internet via Stratosphere

Gp. Capt. Ajey Lele (Retd.) is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 09, 2015

    Internet has become indispensable to the modern-day world. There is a view that access to internet is about right to freedom of expression and few even link its availability and accessibility to the fundamental human rights. Also, it is strongly advocated by many that internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the internet the same, and there should be no discrimination of any kind (Net Neutrality). The dream of ‘Digital India’, an Indian Government initiative that envisages country-wide digital connectivity through broadband highways and access to high-speed internet, is very much in keeping with the universal trend.

    It has been reported that Google, the search engine giant, is planning to conduct a crucial experiment called Project Loon to increase internet connectivity in India. This project has been in place for the last few years in other parts of the world and Alphabet, the holding company responsible for Google and Nest Labs, is responsible for the execution of this project. The project began with a pilot test in New Zealand in 2013 and subsequently in countries like the United States of America, Australia and Brazil.

    The project could be said to have begun as part of the disaster management and relief operation after New Zealand witnessed a major earthquake in 2011. The earthquake had lead to the destruction of various services related to internet in the affected area. There was a need to make the connectivity available in a very short duration and Google used the region as a testbed to validate its technology. Project Loon is about using high-altitude solar and battery powered balloons to transmit high-speed internet over a region. The balloons would float at around 18 to 20 km over the surface of the earth in the stratosphere. Transmission of internet services from such a height allows the frequency bands to deliver better coverage. In fact, beaming the internet from sky eliminates multiple difficulties, from connectivity to affordability. This project offers Wi-Fi 4G services and that too without building a network of cell towers.

    The balloons would have solar panel and electronic unit attached to it. With sunlight at its peak these panels would produce 100 watts of power which would cater for 24 by 7 operations. A 12 meter in length and 15 meter in width balloon made of polyethylene plastic is expected to float in air for 100 days at a stretch and offer services over an area ranging 40 km in diameter. A balloon takes only 15 minutes to set up and broadcast data at speeds up to 10 Mbps.

    Though digital connectivity is the need of the hour, the Indian Government has not yet officially announced its collaboration with Project Loon, which perfectly fits into the scheme of ‘Digital India’. It has been reported that Google may initially partner with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) for testing this technology by using broadband spectrum in 2.6 GHz band. Today, India has much ground to cover to ensure that the digital benefit reaches all parts of the country. Currently, there is a major problem with the expanse of internet connectivity and speed.

    Indian peninsula and other portions of India offer major geographical challenges. India is somewhat a unique state with various geographical features like oceans, forests, mountains, snow-clad peaks, deserts, etc. within its political boundaries. Such geographical features create problems for signal transmission. Also, creating infrastructure in these regions could be technically difficult and financially unviable. Project Loon, however, could offer some immediate solutions to such challenges.

    A report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), covering 189 countries, titled, "The State of Broadband 2015", highlights India’s pathetic condition in various internet-related sectors. On mobile broadband subscriptions, India stood at 155th position in 2014. Amongst the grouping of 133 developing countries, India was on 80th position. Though India has the third largest population of internet users in the world, but looking at India’s population, this should not be considered as some major achievement.

    In fact, as per the World Bank report, “India has one of the lowest Internet adoption rates, with only 17 percent of the 1.2 billion people in the country having regular access to the Internet”. The speed of internet is another problem which India urgently needs to overcome. Presently, India is at 52nd place in respect of the internet speed. The average speed in India is 1.5 to 2 Mbps, which is far less compared to developed Asian states like South Korea (14.2 Mbps) and Japan (11.7 Mbps).

    ‘Digital India’ is an ambitious nation-wide programme that seeks to promote e-education and e-governance in a big way. Under this programme, more than 250,000 government schools and an equal number of village councils are to be connected through internet. Apart from Google, there are few other companies that are keen to do internet business in India. For various commercial internet providers, Asia, and particularly India, is a very lucrative market essentially owing to the large volume of business. Facebook is proposing to use solar drones instead of balloons over the Asian region. Space X has plans to launch clusters of cheap, low-flying satellites to beam internet around the world. Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic (Galactic) is keen to build a big satellite constellation to provide high-speed internet.
    India could look at other options though each have their own challenges. The balloons could encounter major weather systems in some parts of the world (including India), like Jet Streams (narrow variable band of very strong winds) at different heights, depending on the season. Also, there could be some security-related issues particularly in case of usage of drones. There always exists the possibility of drones covertly collecting intelligence-related information. The government would find it difficult to permit their operations. There is also the issue of effective airspace management.

    Nevertheless, there is a need for India to participate in Project Loon to increase its ‘internet footprint’. At the same time, this dependence reflects on how reactive India has been for all these years when it comes to technology adoption. India’s scientific community has credible knowledge and experience in the field of solar energy, communication and sensor development. But, today, just to put a balloon in the sky, there is a need to have a foreign collaborator!

    For many years there have been talks about near-space technologies, which involve using high-altitude balloons/blimps as an alternative to satellites (in limited sense). Major global stakeholders probably have not invested much in exploring the benefits of near-space technologies since such technologies are not major revenue generators. The advantage with near-space technologies is that they are cost-effective, dual-use in nature and could be launched on demand. It is hoped that India’s participation in Project Loon would also lead to surge in its interest in near-space technologies.

    References

    1. The State of Broadband 2015: Broadband as a Foundation for Sustainable Development”, A Report by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, September 2015 (Accessed November 04, 2015)
    2. David Curry, “India Might be the Next to Adopt Project Loon, Alphabet’s Ambitious Internet Plan”, Digital Trends, November 04, 2015
    3. Project Loon: 7 Things To Know About Google's Giant Balloon”, SiliconIndia, November 04, 2015 (Accessed November 05, 2015)
    4. Akhil Ranjan, “‘Digital India’ Lags Behind in World Internet Race”, BBC News, September 26, 2015 (Accessed September 28, 2015)

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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