Questions loom over Google Loon | Daily News

Questions loom over Google Loon

The Google Loon Project which promises to deliver cheap, high-speed internet to all, is the darling of all, and as the government goes ahead with its implementation, the balloon seems to be running into a few practical storm clouds on the way.

The Loon

The Project involves sending balloons into the stratosphere at a height of around 20km - safely above clouds, storms and commercial flights. The balloon carries a box of solar-powered electronics, which makes a radio link to a telecommunications network on the ground. This then beams down high-speed cellular internet coverage, to smart phones and other devices.

The balloons are controlled by Google’s ‘Loon Centre’ which directs the balloon to where it needs to go. When you have enough balloons in the stratosphere, as one floats out of your area, there will be another to take its place. This is supposed to ensure uninterrupted internet connectivity.

Once the balloons are launched, Google will partner with telecommunication companies (telcos) and beam their LTE (Long Term Evolution) services to places they don’t usually reach. Google argues that this would help the companies, as they would then not need to spend millions to build their own infrastructure - like cell towers or fibre optic cables, to reach remote areas.

Founding Chair, LIRNEasia, 
Dr. Rohan Samarajiva 

CEO, ICTA, Muhunthan Canagey

US venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya

They have already run tests with telcos like Vodafone in New Zealand, Telstra in Australia and Telefonica in Latin America. They promise to split the revenue from any new customers with the telecommunication company, providing the LTE spectrum.

Sri Lanka’s role

As Google looked for countries that would like to partner with it on a commercial scale, Sri Lanka born US venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya stepped in with the idea that Sri Lanka would be the ideal place to test the new technology. As interest in the project grew, the Sri Lankan government too, came on board and by July 28, 2015, the government had signed a MoU with Google to implement the Loon Project in Sri Lanka.

Palihapitiya and his company the RAMA Corporation is to act as the go-between Google and Sri Lanka. RAMA has proposed that the government of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan telcos form a company with itself, to reap the benefits of Loon. The government would own a 25 percent stake in the company. whilst the Telcos would be given a 10 percent share. RAMA through one of its subsidiary companies LotusFlare would provide the telcos with the software needed to connect with the Loon, and they in turn would pay a specific fee to RAMA to be able to connect with Loon.

The Loon has estimated that Sri Lanka will need 13 balloons to cover the entire island with high-speed internet. Their timeline for the launch of the project was the end of last year, but several technical and regulatory issues have held them back.

Who will pay?

“The basic issue is that Sri Lanka is a country with a policy problem. For our levels of literacy and per capita GDP, we don’t have the expected degree of internet use. We should be open to innovation and try to rectify this problem in whichever way possible, and if Google Loon can do it, I am up for it, but this should not be done at the cost of disrupting fair play,” said Dr. Rohan Samarajiva, the founding Chair of LIRNEasia, an ICT policy and regulation think tank.

He explained that Google Loon would require a specific frequency to operate at, in order to provide internet facilities to all, but that frequency needed to be sold to Loon in a fair manner, with no exceptions made.

In 2005, the frequency spectrum was ‘refarmed’; this redistributed frequencies to telcos in the most efficient manner and also freed up others for better use:

“We first told the companies who had been with us throughout, that because they had supported us through difficult times, we would give them a base frequency of 7.5Mhz (900Mhz band). The other companies, like Suntel, Lanka Bell and Lanka Telecom were given a base of 2.5Mhz (800Mhz band). When Airtel came in, they got a license at 5Mhz, because the 7.5Mhz was not free. Any extra frequencies they wanted would have to be bought through a bidding process at an auction. This principle has stood for the last 10 years,” said Dr. Samarajiva.

The government earned millions of dollars through auctions, and this held true when technologies such as 3G and 4G were introduced: “Frequencies are extremely valuable. The market should be allowed to determine the price,” he said.

Questions over whether Loon too, would be subjected to the auction arose when CEO of the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), Muhunthan Canagey at a press conference in April stated: “Traditionally, governments have only been selling spectrum to businesses. By becoming a partner, the government hopes to create value. As the value of the business increases, the government hopes to increase its own value.”

This has led many to speculate that Google would be given frequencies free of charge and Dr. Samarajiva protested against this possibility:

“That is a bad principle to follow. It will disrupt the framework, people will then question why they alone have to participate in the auction. The rule that no frequencies would be sold without an auction, should be safeguarded.“We have to have them bid in real money, not through shares in companies. If that is the case, the government is a stakeholder in Mobitel - why does Mobitel participate in the bidding process?” he asked.

He proposed that Loon use the frequencies of the existing customers to run their project or be given a frequency on a trial basis and then charged thereafter.

“When in government, the approach we take towards innovations is this; what will be the outcome, if it is to fail? 3G had a trial period between 2002-2003. In the same way we can have a trial period here too. It is possible that this too might fail and if it does, we shouldn’t have given valuable frequencies away to a company,” said Dr. Samarajiva.

Though Loon would have to operate on a telecommunications license, the annual fee, Dr. Samarajiva pointed out, could be set very low. Thus the only way the government earned money was through the auction.

ICTA Information Infrastructure Programme Manager Gavaskar Subramaniam however stated that it was too early to determine how the Loon Project or RAMA would be regulated in Sri Lanka. “We have not yet set up the company with Google, the telcos and RAMA. We are still at the testing period,” said Subramanium.

The ICTA is responsible for the facilitation and implementation of the project: “We need 100 percent internet coverage, in order to improve our digital infrastructure. If not, all our other projects will be only be limited to a certain group of people,” he said.

The Loon which operated at 20km, is classified as a High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) and according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is classified to be given a spectrum band of 700Mhz.

“We will be needing a 700Mhz band to operate the LTE technology,” said Subramanium and added that they expected to take another 6-12 months to complete the testing period. The testing has been funded by the RAMA Corporation.

Band Problems

Implementation of the project however is going to face a massive roadblock, as government officials have warned ICTA that the 700Mhz band is not available for Loon. It is currently occupied by broadcasters - who would have to be moved or given another band which is not easily found.

This has put the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) under immense pressure from the government. An official from the TRC speaking to the Daily News said: “We know this is a project of national importance, but the TRC is having difficulties finding them a suitable frequency, but we are working with them to do our best.”

The LTE technology needs two similar frequencies in two positions, and finding such specific frequencies is not easy. The TRC has informed ICTA and Google of the problem and teams from each have been sent to work with the TRC, to find a solution.

The TRC is currently undertaking a digitization programme of the spectrum, costing several billions and this would make it easier for them to find a frequency, but the project is expected to take 3-5 years for completion.

The justification of the Loon Project is that it would give all faster and cheaper internet. According to Open Signal, a company which studies the coverage and performance of Mobile Operators worldwide, Sri Lanka’s LTE coverage stands at a mere 40 percent since its introduction in 2011. At the time, LTE operators were given the 1800MHz band to operate on, given the unavailability of the 700Mhz band. The latter band has poor penetration indoors.

Despite such average performances, Sri Lanka has been a pioneer in terms of mobile technology and was one of the first to introduce 3G and LTE technology in the region.

This however has not translated into more people becoming computer literate or internet savvy. According to statistics from the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS), computer literacy in 2009, which was declared as the ‘Year of English and Information Technology’ stood at 20.3 percent. This figure, by 2015 had only risen to 26.8 percent. Internet use in 2009 which was at 13.1 percent however had dropped to 11.8 percent in 2015.

The DCS in its findings concluded that urban areas had greater levels of literacy than rural and estate, while the Western Province stood out with the highest numbers of those who used computers. These factors were tied to the economic situation of the people, as those better off could afford to study ICT and have access to a computer (LTE technology would also need the use of smart devices and these do not come cheap).

The younger generation understandably was more computer savvy than the older generation, and the level of education of a person directly impacted how computer literate he or she was. More importantly, if the person was to know English, the chances of he or she being computer literate was three times higher.

Given all these considerations, it is questionable whether the Loon alone would bring Sri Lanka into the digital century.

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