Google and the French Space agency CNES made one of the stranger announcements of the year yesterday with Project Loon. One could be forgiven for waking up with a Christmas party hangover and thinking it was April Fools Day.
Google is to make some unspecified contribution to the small scientific project CNES runs to investigate the Stratosphere using high altitude balloons which carry small instrumentation payloads to gather environmental monitoring data.
Somehow this got spun by the gullible trade press into a story about providing broadband everywhere from balloons. No-one sought to point out the obvious errors, so we though we would:
1. Spectrum is a very scarce resource and its getting saturated fast. In the USA, Lightsquared is locked into a visceral battle over the rights to a small sliver of 3g spectrum. Satellite operators routinely have border disputes over small spectrum parcels (see EUT v SES last year) and Samsung of Korea is currently orchestrating a lobbying campaign to have the old fashioned C band spectrum that some Satellite firms use at 5GHz handed over to the mobile phone industry for 5G services. The French government itself just announced a plan to auction a piece of 700MHz spectrum serving just France with the intention of raising $2.5bn. The recent US auction of AWS-3 spectrum has raised over $30bn. How spectrum rights will magically appear from nowhere for this Loonatic project, no-one has yet attempted to explain. And if its such a neat idea, why is no mobile phone company even vaguely interested in it?
2. How anyone will get aviation authority approval to fly an enormous fleet of these dangerous unmanned objects. Just think for a moment about the enormous approval process it takes to be allowed to fly even mature technology like the recently launched Boeing Dreamliner and how easily they are grounded by the slightest malfunction of the smallest component, in this case some poor battery control. Now imagine trying to persuade the world’s regulators to allow you to fly a fleet of heavy, unproven unmanned craft over populated areas. How do you prove they won’t enter an uncontrolled descent and interfere with air routes, or crash to Earth and kill people? Happy days for the lawyers who will get 20 years work if they try.
3. Experience tells us that creating radical new Technology quickly is never as easy as glib articles might have you believe. How a randomly moving base station carries a large enough payload, generating enough power and maintains a link budget with receivers on the ground in sufficient quality and quantity to provide a reliable mass market telecoms service is unexplained. The technology just does not exist.
Google seems very keen to distract our attention from its increasing control over our electronic information. It is all the more keen to distract us from its control over our physical privacy with its new Skybox Earth imaging project which will be filming your kids playing in the back garden very soon. So throwing money at experimental projects might seem like a good idea to throw the press of the scent. And in this case, bunging a bit of cash at the ailing French government might call the dogs off the Google tax avoidance scandal that has been building in Europe in recent weeks. But it doesn’t do much for the advancement of truth and rigour in science and R&D.