Google says it is all systems go for its Project Loon balloon-broadband initiative and that it soon hopes to announce its first African operating partners, with India and rural US waiting in the wings.
Project Loon will provide internet access to people in rural and remote areas, and bring people back online after disasters.The high-altitude balloons are placed at an altitude of 20 miles, providing an aerial wireless network with speeds up to 3G.
Google X's regional business lead Wael Fakharany says the company has “almost perfected” the Loon technology and as soon as it manages to cut through Government red tape and finalize partners it will be able to roll.
He says turning the project from its experimental stage into a live service, requires access to cellular spectrum and on-ground customers, which Google is working on with service operators in the countries it wants to "blanket".
“The operators control the distribution, marketing ... the customer relationship is with the telcos. We are just the infrastructure provider,” says Fakharany.
He says a permanent commercial service also requires "a lot of government-level negotiation" to obtain "overflight permissions". In July, Sri Lanka's communications minister Mangala Samaraweera announced that they would be working with Google to bring Project Loon to his country.
Fakharany says Project Loon has been a very steep learning curve for Google - going from first conceiving the idea to actually getting it operating. He says through this process Google X has learned "something of the realpolitik of telecommunications".
Experts say two thirds of the world's population do not have Internet access which, in theory, the Google X Project Loon should be able to cut into substantially.
Project Loon began with a pilot test in June 2013, when thirty balloons were launched from New Zealand’s South Island and beamed Internet to a small group of pilot testers.