Internet balloons circling the globe may sound like something from a sci-fi story, but as is becoming increasingly more common these days, the idea is very much a part of reality and is of course being championed by Google. Project Loon, after its rocky design start, set out to start carrier testing in 2016 and is now talking to several Indian telecom companies to help get things going there. So what would balloon-powered internet mean for India? Let’s take a look.
Bridging Big Gaps
Project Loon was originally announced in 2013 by Google’s Google X incubator with the simple motto “balloon-powered internet for everyone.” It’s partially a move to help humanity, as tech and web access and skills become increasingly important in bridging socio-economic barriers. It’s also partially a calculated business move, since bringing the internet into underserviced areas in developing economies helps build a market for the other services offered by Google.
Motive notwithstanding, Project Loon could be a big deal for India. As of now, Google has not stated that the balloon-powered internet will be free. That’s something that will likely be a part of negotiations with Indian telecom companies. What it will do, though, is bring internet to India’s non-urban population.
With cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata, and some 46 urban areas with a population of over one million based on the 2011 census data, it can be easy to think of India’s population as largely urban. But as of 2014, only 32 percent of India’s total population was found to be living in urban areas. That means of the roughly 1.3 billion people in India at the time, some 416 million were living in cities. That meas 884 million were living in rural or semi-rural areas, and those are exactly the sorts of places that don’t get things like telecom infrastructure.
In fact, in a country of over a billion people, India is estimated to have around 375 million internet users. That’s what Project Loon aims to change. The focus of the project is to bring internet to areas where physical isolation, economic circumstances, or some combination therein have kept web services from developing.
Local partners will play an important role in this, as well, helping to educate the millions of Indians who have never before used the internet about the function and capabilities of this new service and bring it in at an affordable price. Tests already launched in Sri Lanka and set in Indonesia could help them fine-tune the product as it reaches more and more people.
Project Loon has been met with a surprising amount of support not just from the local Google offices in India, but also from the government. This comes as a bit of a surprise after the ban of Facebook’s Free Basic scheme. Unlike Facebook’s product, though, Google is not restricting access to the sites users can visit, and thus was not found to be violating the fundamentals of net neutrality. While talks both at a commercial and governmental level are still underway, it’s looking good for balloon-powered internet in India.