At least three central ministries — defence, home and civil aviation — and the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) have raised technical and security concerns over the project, government officials in the know told ET.
Project Loon proposes to provide internet connectivity from balloons floating at a height of 20 km above the earth’s surface on a pilot basis. The idea is to connect remote areas of the country using LTE or 4G technology through the balloons, which can transmit as far as 40 km from their diameter.
Chennai-born Pichai, who is visiting India next week, is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the progress of Loon is expected to be one of the top discussion points between the two. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is said to be directly monitoring the progress of the project after Modi and Pichai had a dialogue over it during the former’s Silicon Valley trip in September.
One of the primary concerns with the proposal is that the spectrum band required for the transmission is unavailable. According to DoT, Google has sought a band of 700 to 900 MHz, which is occupied by telecom service providers.
Union communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad confirmed that there are technical glitches in Project Loon. “The proposed frequency band to be used in the Loon Project of Google is being used for cellular operations in India and it will lead to interference with cellular transmissions,” he said in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha.
The other concerns are related to security. While the civil aviation ministry fears that the balloons may interfere with flight paths should thus be monitored by Air Traffic Control (ATC), the home ministry has expressed fears of external surveillance through them. The defence ministry is concerned about the balloons floating over military establishments and coming in the way of military aircraft.
A government official said there have been several meetings between the nodal officers of these ministries and the Google team, including the ones from their headquarters in Mountain View, California. “Google has been notified in written about the concerns and now they have to get back to us with possible solutions,” added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Google India could not be immediately reached for a comment.
“The most important concern is that of spectrum, rest of the issues can be take care of,” said another government official, who is directly involved with the discussions. Google is testing this technology in Brazil and New Zealand but it is not clear if it has zeroed in yet on a location in India.
A home ministry official said during the initial discussions, the intelligence agencies had expressed concerns about monitoring through cameras or surveillance.
“But it was decided that the project be given conditional clearance, provided the technical issues are resolved since it is currently proposed to be a pilot,” the official said requesting anonymity. Another government official said even though the balloons will be floating much above the limit for civil aircrafts, there are concerns about possible accidents if due to some technical glitch, the balloon makes a descent.
A few Loon balloons have crashed in the US, New Zealand and South Africa but haven’t caused much damage. The discussions on this were last held in October and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, which is in charge of the proposal, is now awaiting Google’s response on it.
Meanwhile, rival Microsoft has also proposed its white space technology or unused television broadcast frequencies for providing connectivity to 5 lakh villages in the country and is running a pilot in Andhra Pradesh on it. That proposal too has invited criticism.
ET had earlier reported that along with India’s top mobile carriers, the Broadband India Forum (BIF) has countered its plan and urged DoT to ensure such broadcast frequencies be only allocated through an open auction and not given away for free. BIF represents companies such as Bharti Airtel, RCOM, Vodafone, Qualcomm, Ericsson, Intel, Marvell, UTStarcom and BSNL.