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Google project Loon nears test phase in India

2.5GHz band, besides 700MHz, evaluated; concerns on security, cellular interference, being allayed

Google may be close to conducting a pilot of its global Project Loon in India. The project aims at using high-altitude balloons equipped with 4G LTE antennae that will bring reasonably fast internet to places where it's currently not possible to get online - like India's rural areas where over 65% of the population live.

The communications and IT ministry may allow the test for four days, according to an ET report. The location of the pilot is expected to be in Andhra Pradesh or Maharashtra . "We are trying to test the effectiveness of Loon in the interiors of the country, since there is already ample connectivity in urban areas," said a Loon official. The National Informatics Centre (NIC) has the job of choosing the location and other requirements for the pilot.

The project was cleared for India last December. The Communications Ministry had proposed a partnership with state-run BSNL, which could help in obtaining clearances from the civil aviation and defence ministries.

Now BSNL is coordinating with Google for the project, including space, spectrum coordination and equipment testing, its CMD Anupam Shrivastava told ET. At present two airwave bands are under evaluation -700 MHz and 2.5GHz. The latter seems the more likely choice as it does not require the telecom department's approval, Shrivastava said. Interestingly, BSNL has 20 MHz of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band across 14 service areas which it sees as good for offering 4G services.

To take off, the Loon project faces many hurdles in India - including allaying the concerns of the telecom, civil aviation, home and defence ministries because of concerns relating to spectrum, air space, security and surveillance.

One of the primary concerns is that the spectrum band preferred by Google for the transmission - 700 MHz to 900 MHz - is currently occupied by telecom service providers and could lead to interference with cellular transmissions. Besides, the civil aviation ministry fears that the balloons may interfere with flight paths; the home ministry is worried about surveillance; and the defence ministry is apprehensive about the balloons floating over military establishments and coming in the way of military aircraft.

Google has been at work allaying all these fears. A Google team reportedly 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"

The location of the pilot will be identified based on suggestions from the civil aviation ministry that the helium-filled balloons should be hosted at a place where there is minimal interference with the civilian air space. "We will identify the location and then approach the civil aviation ministry for permission"

The spectrum issue is more tricky, as most local telecom service providers are opposed to the idea of government providing spectrum free of charge to companies such as Google and Microsoft for these alternate connectivity projects.

How exactly will the project operate? According to "The Register" portal, "the Loon system consists of a massive balloon designed to float around 65,000 feet above the earth's surface, well out of the way of commercial flight routes. Each balloon has a 100W solar panel array that charges a battery for nighttime operations, LTE antennas capable of covering around 80 kilometers on the ground, and additional antennas to relay traffic to other balloons. Since balloons go where the wind takes them, Google thinks it can control the system by simply raising or lowering the balloon's altitude to drop it into a different wind current. It has built control software capable of managing thousands of balloons automatically to ensure coverage isn't lost.

The payload on the baloon has yet to be finalized and may include weather-monitoring kit that could be used by Google, and possibly given on to weather forecasting agencies.

Google says the the first builds lasted only a day or so aloft before exploding. The Loon team subsequently hired the US Air Force's McKinley Climatic Laboratory to do testing, and "thanks to the testing, a Loon gasbag can stay aloft for around 100 days before developing a leak or exploding". The balloons are equipped with parachutes to avoid dropping a few hundred pounds of hardware onto the earth, and Google has constructed a manufacturing system capable of churning out a new balloon every few hours.

To launch a Loon, Google has also built an automatic crane system that can be shipped around the world and safely deploys a new balloon while protecting its instrument packages. When they are brought down, a recovery team rescues the hardware for reuse, and disposes of the remains of the balloon.

The system has had a?number?of?trials, notably in?New Zealand?where Google partnered with local telco Vodafone to provide a network backbone for the LTE traffic. So far the results have been good, Google says, but the system needs to be tested at scale using thousands of balloons.

Google will also face competition in India from other schemes. Microsoft, as well as three Indian IITs and ERNET, are conducting tests to deploy unused radio waves known as 'White Space' for the same purpose. Nokia and Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-M) recently collaborated to evaluate options for using unlicensed spectrum to deliver cost-effective, last-mile broadband, and Facebook is pursuing a global project to use solar-powered drones, satellites and lasers to provide internet connectivity.

Based on stories in Economic Times and The Register

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