Google X’s Project Loon Plans to increase internet accessibility
This week is Student pugwash, Pugwash members discussed the possibilities and concerns of Project Loon, a revolutionary initiative spearheaded by a team at Google X. The goal of project loon is to provide access to the internet for people in rural areas of the world tha tare traditionally difficult to cnnect via terresrial methods.
Internet Sevice Providers (ISP’s) are usually out to make a profit and they usually rely on many customers to offset the costs of buildign infrastructure. In more rural areas or areas with difficultterrain, it is far too expensive to reach a very small number of customers. google’s solution was to launch high-altitude balloons that would act as floating cell towers in the stratosphere – almost 20 kilometers (12.4miles) in alitude. google partners with local ISP’s to provide internet access to users via the balloon network.
Google Loon is demonstarting a remarkable command of our stratosphere, as they have been able to keep these hugh-altitude balloons in flight for six months – much longer than a traditional weather balloon. The balloons are kept high enough that they will not interfere with brid or airplane traffic. but even so, they must still fly over nations and operate in their airspace. As such, they must respect all the laws of the nation that they inhabit. Moreover, these balloons are not able to independently steer themselves. The balloons keep themselves in favorable locations by chnaging altitude akin to a submarine, then they rely air currents for navigation. Unfortunately these methods are imprecise, and many are concerned that these balloons may not be able to avoid jurisdictional restrictions or no-fly zones.
Though it may be possible to track the balloons in real time through gloal Positioning System(GPS), it may be impossible to guarantee navigation. Luckily google’s navigation code so far has been rather reliable, and theflight is now controlled by machine learning models to better predict the randomness of the atmosphere.
Even if it may be easy for the balloon itself to avoid borders, borders cannot stop radio waves. The balloons build a peer-to-peer netwrok with themselves, and they do not require any equipment on the ground to relay inforamtion. Some countries subject their citizens to strict censorship by exerting control over the internet, so they fear that Google may not cooperate with demands t orestrict communication and speech.
This discussion brought up several questions. Should a country even have the right to block access to information in the first place? Besides, should a company that is based in the United States of america be required to do so? In some parts of the world, access to the internet is considered a utility or even a human right. As we move into a connecte future, how could we allow some people to be disconnected from that right by a terrestrial government?
Yet another concern about the loon technology is that these balloons could be utilized as a tool of espionage. google is already well-acquainted with cataloging satellite and aerial imagery, so some believe that it would be easy for them to do so. In reality, Google is likely not interested in espionage, primarily because the balloons cannot afford to sacrifice any spare mass just to be able to put heavy espionage equipment onbaord. Furthermore, if anyone were to discover that Google was involved in espionage, it would severely harm their creibility as a buisness.
Even though the primary balloon could provide internet, it would be feasible that Google may create another class of balloons for other purposes. Moreover, a member of the discussion reminded everyone about a government agency attempting to camouflage a vehicle as a Google StreetView car. it would be within the realm of possibility that a nation may attempt to disguise a surveillance balloon as one of Google’s Loon balloons. In the meantime, provided that nobody attempts to use these balloons for espionage, google is proficient at scraping data and using it for their own purposes, so there are certainly concerns there.
In the end, Google X’s Project loon is an amazing opportunity to give everyone a change to educate themselves and communicate on the Internet, but we must be careful and watch out for the evils that could be introduced by such a nebulous goal. Ideally, google’s success will encourage other new technologies and also perhaps other innovations. In the apst, we have experimented with Geiger counters and other equipment attached to weather balloons, and Google’s regular atmospheric presence has allowed the mto provid data to the National Oceanic and atmospheric Agency. As is often the case in the Student Pugwash, we have found many applications of the amazing technology to be wary of and many uses to be cheering for.
Studnet Pugwash is anon-advocay, educational organization that discusses the implications of science. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on google X’s Project Loon.