Project Loon balloon at the launch event in Christchurch, New Zealand | Pic courtesy

With the Internet being available to almost the entire world, there yet remains a significant portion of the population that has no access to the Internet. That’s the problem that Google set out to solve with their “Google Loon” project. The concept was simple.

Launch a few hundred (or thousand) balloons into the sky. These balloons would be specially equipped with hardware that is capable of directing and distributing LTE wireless signals back to earth. Think of them as mobile hotspots that float above your head. As such they would be capable of transmitting these wireless signals back to earth so that people can access the Internet via these same signals. The premise was that if infrastructure is the issue, it no longer needed to be.

When proposed, it sounded like the ideal plan for Third World countries whose economy lacked the required funding to set up a network infrastructure to cover the entire country. Everything was hunky dory.

Fast forward to 28th July
The Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA) is pleased to invite you to the launch of the “Digital Infrastructure, Unimagined!” initiative scheduled to be held on the 28th July 2015 from 9.30 am onwards at Temple Trees.

This initiative is anticipated to transform Sri Lanka’s ICT landscape to the next level and lead Sri Lanka towards experiencing cutting-edge technology in the use of ICT’s and will give unimaginable opportunities for Sri Lankan Public Sector, Telecommunication Sector and the citizens to experience the latest state-of-the-art digital infrastructure technology.

This piqued our curiosity. The above was taken from the Facebook status of Sanjiva Weerawarana, Founder, CEO and Chief Architect of WSO2. The event in this case was presided over by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Telecoms & IT Minister Mangala Samaraweera and it is here that those attending go the shock of their lives when none other than Google Vice President Michael Cassidy himself accompanied the minister to reveal that Sri Lanka has been chosen to be the very first country to have full internet coverage courtesy of the “Google Loon” project.

This certainly caught everyone by surprise. Quite so, in fact, that none of the major Telecommunication Operators present at the meeting had the slightest notion that Loon would be launched in Sri Lanka. This of course raised numerous other questions and for a good one to two hours, all social media outlets were a flurry of activity.

Mangala Samaraweera’s twitter activity was fluttering with *ahem* tweets. But that’s not all. This is where things became even more interesting. Leave it to people to jump to conclusions and you’ll end up with some mighty fine results.

For example, a friend of mine went about Facebook proudly proclaiming that since Google Loon is here, he can bid farewell to his mediocre internet connection and embrace Google’s internet. It took him a good while to understand that Google would have nothing to do with providing internet but rather would be using the existing infrastructure to boost the coverage of internet to rural areas and that he would, in fact, still be using his “mediocre” connection.

Another wild theory that surfaced was that Google would be providing free internet courtesy of Google Fiber to Sri Lanka thus rendering all TelCos obsolete. This too was met with a solid wall of explanation and a good dose of reading up online for him to come to his (partial) senses.

Then you get the political influences that call foul play because of the upcoming elections and see the Loon project as an attempt to boost the standings of certain political parties. How true this is we don’t know and quite frankly, some questions are better left unanswered.

There are however, some questions that we would like some answers for. Namely,
How was it even possible to launch a project of this magnitude in Sri Lanka without a single Telco getting wind about it?
According to Google, Loon would be akin to a service provider providing service to those in rural areas. To do this, they would need the cooperation of existing TelCos to beam their LTE signals to the balloons in order to transmit them to the rural areas. Just run me by on exactly how this would be done without the prior knowledge of the TelCos?

Google, acting as the intermediary for this would obviously be looking to get a cut from providing the service. The question is, exactly how much of a cut are we looking at here? And who pays for it? The TelCo? So does that mean the TelCo, in turn, would burden that cost on the consumer? And if so, how much of it would the consumer have to bear?

Where exactly are we getting the funding for all this? The Loon project relies on specially developed balloons. Will Google provide these for free? Or do we have to pay for it? Our current state of affairs (with the upcoming elections and numerous other projects) means that we are not exactly rolling around in wealth either. So do we have the funds to spend for all this?

If you recall, several months ago, ICTA launched a project that would provide free WiFi to all major areas of public access. The premise back then was that each citizen who connects to the service would be allocated 100MB of data per month. Later this was reshuffled to look like a big data analysis where the government and those involved would analyze the data find out what areas had the most amount of data usage and at what time, etc. Well what happens to that now? If ICTA was indeed in talks with Google to get Project Loon up and running, then why spend all those resources on the “Free WiFi” project?

Despite our attempts to get in touch with major TelCos who attended this event and even to get in touch with members of ICTA, including the CEO of ICTA, Muhunthan Canagey, our attempts were futile. But nonetheless, we will remain vigilant with regard to this matter.

Testing for Project Loon would apparently begin in December 2015 and upon successful completion, the project should be up and running by 2016. I guess well just have to see how true this is.

All in all, we aren’t against Google’s Loon project at all. Rather, we welcome it with open arms. The simplicity of the project means that we can actually provide decent bandwidth to those in rural areas. The question remains though, at what cost?