Project Loon: Google’s biggest obstacle isn’t technology. It’s politics

The balloon-powered network known as Loon may be one of Google’s(s goog) famed moon shots, but the biggest issues facing the project are grounded right here on Earth. This won’t just be a major technological feat for Google. It will be a huge political undertaking. I give Google credit: it’s never shied away from a challenge. But if Loon is going to be a success, it’s going to have to wade deeply into the morass of global international relations.

I say this because Loon is no ordinary network – and I’m not referring to the balloons. Google wants to build a network that knows no borders. Not only does Google want to implement it in every country with an underserved internet population, but the network itself will be stateless, coasting from continent to continent.

Project Loon

Loon would basically become an internet service provider above the clouds. Terrestrial radios on the ground would link to solar-powered balloons floating 12 miles up in the stratosphere. These balloons would link to each other to form a mesh network, bouncing signals off one another until they reach a ground-based station with a fiber connection to the internet. Google will have some control over where these balloons go by navigating the wind currents, but as Google shows in its Loon videos, its eventual plan is to set them loose in the sky, letting them follow the west-east stratospheric winds around the world.

“If the balloons are circling over the bottom half of the world, eventually the balloon that’s over South Africa will pass over South America,” Google captain of moonshots Astro Teller explained in one such video.

Old Globe

Well, Iran happens to be at the same latitude as Texas. The same network infrastructure floating over the U.S. will make its way above Middle Eastern countries with which the U.S. isn’t exactly on the best terms. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. The internet should transcend international boundaries, and it does more to help international relations than it does harm. But I doubt every world leader will see that way.

Since Loon will use radios, it will have to use spectrum, which is tightly regulated by the world’s governments. It can’t just use any old spectrum either. It will have to convince hundreds of different regulators to agree on a unified band or ride over an existing one – such as the unlicensed airwaves used for Wi-Fi. But the scope and range of Google’s Loon network will likely require dedicated airwaves. Just imagine a Wi-Fi network blasting down at high-power from the heavens. If your wireless router is using the same airwaves, it will be drowned out.

And we’re not talking about a scenario as simple as Wi-Fi, where airwaves are ultimately shared by multiple entities. We’re talking about Google becoming a global ISP, actually providing or selling internet service. ISPs, like any communications service provider, are regulated, and governments will likely want some say in how that access is offered, what Google can charge, and ultimately whom Google is allowed to connect.

Go, go Google

I’m sure Google has weighed all of these potential obstacles, and that makes its willingness to push ahead all the more admirable and daring (or all the more crazy, depending on how you look at it).

I’m certainly not saying Google can’t accomplish its goal. Google has dealt plenty with regulators and governments in the past, and it has already cut its teeth in the international spectrum arena by working with governments on white space broadband.

The Iridium Next satellite constellation

The Iridium Next satellite constellation

There’s also a precedent for truly global communications providers, namely the satellite networks that traverse the heavens. Loon is very similar to the low-Earth orbit satellite constellations built by Iridium(s irdm) and Globalstar(gsat) and uses the same mesh-networking principles. Those birds zip over the globe just above the atmosphere and ignore international borders. The main difference is that Google’s balloons are surfing the atmospheric wind currents, while Iridium and Globalstar are riding the Earth’s gravitational pull.

But space is still an open frontier, loosely regulated by international treaties.  Most governments consider the stratosphere above them their sovereign airspace, which is why they shoot down spy planes that venture into it.

Earlier today, I participated in a panel discussion about the feasibility of Loon on HuffPost Live, in which the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York raised a telling question: How long before some unstable government seeking to wreak havoc on its world’s communications infrastructure starts shooting down Loon balloons overhead?

A United Nations of broadband

Google might opt to keep the network limited. It has some control of the movements of the balloons. It can increase or decrease their altitude, catching cross currents. It could feasibly keep the Loon gird centered over specific countries by letting the balloons track back and forth. But Google’s ultimate goal seems to be to let them float free blanketing the world in constantly shifting floating mesh.

Google HQ

Loon is truly a noble project, and, sure, Google has profit motive in connecting billions more people to the internet. But this is how technology and communications revolutions are born – one company with a crazy idea for a network and the wherewithal and resources to implement it.

Technology isn’t a barrier. Mesh networks are nothing new, and dirigibles have been around since the time of Graf Zeppelin. The minefield here is entirely political. With every fiber of my being I want Project Loon to succeed, and I’m actually fairly in awe of Google for having the chutzpah to attempt it. But part of me also believes that Google’s Project Loon’s evangelists were perhaps a bit too idealistic in their high-school model U.N. classes.

Globe photo courtesy of Flickr user ToastyKen Google HQ photo courtesy Flickr user Affiliate