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A Potential Blow to Google's Project Loon: Indian Official Throws Water on Internet Balloons

Might Google's Internet balloon get boxed out of the world's biggest democracy?

Project Loon

Project Loon, Google’s pie-in-the-sky plan to blanket the globe with Internet through a chain of balloons floating in the stratosphere, is getting some traction. The Google X project recently signed deals in Sri Lanka, a small country, and Indonesia, a much larger one, for early testing. In Indonesia, the deal involved three telcos, which will share their spectrum with Loon to deliver network coverage.

A hitch, though, may come in India, the country with the largest number of unconnected people (after China).

Loon is considering deployment there, but may have to leap some big regulatory hurdles first, as indicated by comments from India’s top telecom government official. India’s Economic Times reports that Google has moved to purchase spectrum in the country for Loon. Here’s what Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s minister of communication and IT, told the nation’s upper house of Parliament about the purchase: “The proposed frequency band to be used in the Loon Project of Google is being used for cellular operations in India and it will lead to interference with cellular transmissions.”

In other words, India might not let Google fly its balloons.

In a statement, a Loon rep pushed back on that claim, noting that the team had met with Indian officials and believes it can operate with, rather than obstruct, telco companies:

We’ve had several positive meetings with the Indian Government about Project Loon. We’re confident we can address any questions any government officials have about cellular interference, and are looking forward to working with them to conduct initial tests and validate our non-interference analysis. We have already successfully tested integrating the Loon system into the infrastructure of several major telcos. We believe that we can operate a balloon network on shared spectrum in a way that will enhance coverage without impacting existing operations, just like a telco can roll out new towers to expand coverage without causing interference.

The Economic Times also notes that security concerns (Kashmir, India’s disputed territory, is among the most militarized worldwide) are giving the government pause, something I’ve heard from people in India as a reason for government reticence.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is traveling to India this week. In October, Access — a separate Alphabet company from Google or Loon’s X — announced a deal to outfit India’s railways with Wi-Fi technology.

Nota bene: Prasad, India’s telco minister, belongs to the political party of prime minister Narendra Modi, a friend to Silicon Valley.

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