Why Sri Lankan calls Google's Internet balloons a 'big victory' for its citizens

The country was the first in South Asia to introduce cellphones, but only a quarter of its population has Internet access. With Sri Lanka taking a 25 percent stake in the balloon-powered Internet program, Project Loon may represent a different model than Facebook's Free Basics, which has faced harsh criticism as a "colonialist" effort in India.

In this June 10, 2013 photo released by Jon Shenk, a Google balloon sails through the air with the Southern Alps mountains in the background, in Tekapo, New Zealand. In Sri Lanka, where the government has a 25 stake in Google's internet-delivering Project Loon effort, the first balloon is now floating over the country's south, an official said Tuesday.

With new tests in Sri Lanka, Google’s Project Loon — the company’s “moonshot” effort to use a network of balloons floating in the stratosphere to deliver high-speed Internet — is moving forward.

The first of three balloons used in tests for the Internet program in Sri Lanka entered the country’s airspace on Monday after being launched from South America, says Muhunthan Canagey, head of Sri Lanka’s Information and Communication Technology Agency, to Agence France‑Presse.

"Two other balloons will reach [the] country’s coastline by the end of the month. One is currently off the East Coast of South Africa and is expected next week while the other one is expected in 12 days," Mr. Canagey added, noting that the first balloon is currently over the southern part of the country.

Additional Google workers are expected to arrive in the country later this week to test flight controls for the balloons, the efficiency of the radio spectrum that carries the wireless Internet, and other technical issues, Canagey told AFP.

The company is hoping to partner with local telecom companies to use the balloons, which move with the wind after being positioned by software algorithms, to create a large-scale communications network that could be used to provide Internet access in parts of the world where traditional fiber optic networks and wireless coverage can be spotty.

Google’s X unit, now under the larger holding company Alphabet, has been testing the technology since 2013 in New Zealand, California’s Central Valley, and Northeast Brazil. Last year, the balloons, which sit 20 kilometers above the Earth, flew around the world 19 times over 187 days, the company says.

Sri Lanka’s government said earlier this month that it would take a 25 percent stake in the project in return for providing the wireless spectrum needed to broadcast the Internet signals. The tech giant also has a similar partnership in Indonesia.

An additional 10 percent of the project would be offered to existing telecom companies, in a move the partners say promises to offer cheaper rates for data access while expanding coverage throughout Sri Lanka, AFP reports.

The partnership holds particular promise in Sri Lanka, which was the first country in South Asia to introduce cellphones in 1989 and the first nation to introduce a 3G network in 2004, unveiling a 4G standard two years ago.

But despite having some of the world’s cheapest data costs, according to the World Bank, less than a quarter of Sri Lanka’s more than 20 million people have Internet access. The country has about 3.3 million mobile data connections and 630,000 wired Internet subscribers.

In recent months, Facebook's Free Basics, a competing proposal to provide affordable Internet access to users around the world, has faced scrutiny in India and Egypt because of questions about the social network's intent in launching the service. 

Free Basics, which Facebook maintained was intended as a humanitarian effort, earned comparisons to the British East India Company and raised questions about whether the service violates net neutrality, the principle that prohibits a service provider from funneling users to a particular group of websites or blocking access to others.

The conflict over the service, which India’s telecom regulator essentially banned earlier this month, deepened when a Facebook board member and prominent tech investor commented on Twitter that “anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades," adding, “why stop now?”

The series of tweets by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen prompted a storm of criticism and a rebuke by Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg, but the debate also served to raise awareness of a key question about how western companies should approach Internet efforts in other countries.

With Project Loon, which Google chief executive Sundar Pinchai has said he hopes to bring to India soon, Google appears to be taking a different approach, though the effort will also involve partnerships with local telecom companies.

“Think of the enormity of bringing billions of people to the Internet and doing it in a way that is affordable and giving them abundant access and the scope of that is too much for any one entity to tackle on its own,” Marilyn Croak, a Google vice president told the Times of India in December. "So I always tell my team, don't think of us as having competitors, think of us as only having partners in this arena. We have to work together to solve this problem."

In developing its balloon-powered Internet service, the search engine giant also faced technical challenges, including finding a balloon design that was both inexpensive and durable enough to navigate through the stratosphere. The company eventually settled on a design with a lifespan of about 180 days that can be recycled, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The data connection made possible by the balloons has also increased to 15 megabits per second, fast enough to deliver streaming video, Astro Teller, head of Alphabet’s X unit, which oversees Project Loon, told attendees at the annual TED conference in Vancouver on Monday, tech site Recode reports.

In Sri Lanka, officials eventually hope to launch 13 balloons across the country in addition to the one balloon currently in the south.

“This is a big victory for Sri Lanka and a golden opportunity to use connectivity to boost growth,” Harin Fernando, the country’s telecommunication and digital infrastructure minister told the Journal.

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