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Is Loon a looney idea?

Updated: May 28, 2020


This article from Mobile World Live triggered me to add some personal comments – as it reflects quite a few things I said already several years ago. Of course, having worked for a mobile operator group for many years, I have some natural skepticism – and I might not be totally up-to-date on Loon’s latest progress across the world. In any case, every new innovation like Alphabet’s Loon project will face challenges in several areas, technical ones, regulatory ones – and business-related ones – and like any new idea from potential new entrants, there will be concerns around the ecosystem play.

A common ambition shared by all, I believe, is to connect the unconnected in the world – which is something the mobile (operator) industry has been pushing for many years supported by the GSMA, but also something OTTs / (American) big tech companies like Facebook and Google (Alphabet) have had (and still have) several initiatives around (some have been closed down, though – e.g with drones). Of course, doing good for the world is a noble ambition, but companies also have their own business objectives behind. Facebook aims to connect everyone to the “internet” (of course meaning Facebook – which is an app- not the internet). Alphabet aims to do the same (and of course, connecting everyone to Google’s data servers needs connectivity – so an extended internet is good). Mobile operators, as also anyone else, obviously would like to find cost-effective ways to cover very remote areas as well – as it would extend their business (as long as it keeps them in control of the service). Therefore, it is a good cause, but possibly also good business.

Now to the concrete challenges: Technically, covering the rural parts of the world with balloons is, of course, possible – and as the Loon spokesperson in the article Mobile Word Live article indicates, there have been various trials - and technology has been significantly improved since the first trials. Therefore, I don’t believe technology is the main challenge here. In my humble view (which also seems to be the one of the Mobile World Live author) the key challenges will be regulatory ones, or business- and business model-related ones.

Consider a scenario with balloons intended to cover e.g. rural areas of India: Balloons fly around with very high winds speeds 20 km up in the stratosphere – and, although the balloons are supposed to find new winds to change direction and navigate correctly based on sophisticated AI, it could still happen that they suddenly would fly into Pakistani airspace. Then what? Will they get shot down? Will they fall down and be lost in a Pakistani farmer’s field somewhere? … or will they have in-built mechanisms so that they are explicitly and correctly taken down before that happens? so it won’t? … or will there need to be agreed processes between India and Pakistan to sort out what to do with stray balloons? Launching and taking down the balloons may also have a number of challenges. There will need to be regulatory approvals and proper coordination with aviation authorities – and to date Loon has had a number of crash landings or similar incidents. In any case, this can all probably be sorted, but there might be a few challenges along the way.

There are also security aspects. Indian security agencies will, as far as I know, want to have the possibility to intercept any communication that happens over Indian airspace - which really means that there must be a ground station within India, most likely under the control of a licensed (and trusted) Indian operator with expensive lawful intercept equipment installed. Having a separate and independent “balloon”-operator is probably unlikely, as they, in addition to the intercept functionality, would need to acquire separate spectrum (and probably also have national roaming arrangements) – so that is probably be too expensive and won’t happen.

The spectrum used is thus assumed to belong to the existing operators – working in collaboration with a “balloon” operator. Finally, what if the balloons beam into Pakistan (which they probably will do – since the beams come from very far above)? … and what about all the people living in border areas, using the service? … an added aspect to frequency coordination (and national security)!

These are only some aspects of politics or regulatory. There may be many more, but in any case, the political and regulatory challenges are probably bigger than any technical ones.

On the business-side, my assumption is that, provided there is a collaborative business model together with appropriate operators, including bearing the cost of launching and taking down balloons, utilization of spectrum, implementation of lawful intercept, revenue sharing from usage and more, it could be made to be a viable business solution. I would challenge the viability though in geographical areas with many countries, e.g. in Europe and South East Asia, however, due to political and regulatory challenges. It might be a good approach to try out e.g. in Australia or New Zealand, at least for temporary emergency use (like in Puerto Rico or Peru) - or in isolated island nations – or possibly in some large African countries (which actually also has happened).

Connecting the unconnected remains a good ambition – and there are not only initiatives that could be disruptive for some ecosystem players. There are also various collaborative industry initiatives to make this more viable (although not necessarily with drones or balloons), be it within the GSMA or through other initiatives like e.g. the Telecom Infra Project (TIP). Let’s get everyone connected!

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