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Google testing Project Loon: Concerns are without factual basis

Fri 29 Jan 2016

Project Loon

In a filing submitted to the FCC on Tuesday, Google stated that while concerns for health and environmental risks posed by Project Loon testing were ‘genuinely held,’ ‘there is no factual basis for them.’

Google approached the Federal Communications Commission seeking permission to test airborne and terrestrial transmitters throughout the US. This likely refers to Project Loon, an experimental method by which polyethylene balloons measuring 15m x 12m, when inflated, are released into the stratosphere. The balloons use wireless technology called LTE to provide internet connectivity to ground areas up to 80km in diameter per balloon.

This would allow Google to become an internet service provider to areas with minimal existing infrastructure. Each balloon is powered by solar panels and lithium ion batteries and is designed to withstand the harsh UV radiation and dramatic temperature swings that are found in the upper levels of the atmosphere.

Because Project Loon balloons are floating 20km above ground in the stratosphere, they will be subject to wind motion and weather patterns. Google has developed software algorithms to determine where each balloon is needed, and then uses prevailing wind to transport the balloons in the correct direction.

Since first unveiling its plans for Project Loon, a number of informal objections have been submitted to the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology. Those objections range from environmental concerns related to increased exposure to RF and microwave radiation, to concerns for loss of control and crashes of the balloons themselves. They also range from informal (“Say NO to Google: If microwaves are messing with birds then WTF is it doing to us? I don’t want Google’s microwaves hitting me!”) to formal legal filings. One such complaint was a request for additional disclosure filed by the Fixed Wireless Communications Coalition, Inc. whose members include communications service providers and telecommunications carriers.  The FWCC showed concern that Google’s Project Loon may interfere with existing systems, stating “there was nothing in the record to indicate how mobile units would be controlled to avoid interference with fixed links.”  This complaint must strike a chord with Google’s implementation staff, as Project Loon requires cooperation and partnerships with existing telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum.

Google’s most recent filing with the FCC attempts to address both types of complaint. First, it states flatly that its proposed testing poses no health or environmental risks, and is all well within the standards of experimentation that the FCC regularly approves. It also pledges to avoid interference with any other users of the proposed bandwidth, by collocating transmitters on shared platforms and sharing information kept current daily by an FCC-approved third party database manager.

Just two days ago, the Indian government approved expansion of Project Loon testing in rural India. Perhaps data from that test can be used to alleviate concerns with Project Loon expansion in the United States as well.

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