Can Google Fly Its Internet Balloons Wherever It Wants?

The Internet is abuzz with news of the first public flight tests in New Zealand of Google’s Project Loon, which aims to provide Internet access to underserved areas using a network of high-altitude balloons. As Google explained in a June 14 blog post:

We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides Internet access to the earth below. It’s very early days, but we’ve built a system that uses balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, to beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster. As a result, we hope balloons could become an option for connecting rural, remote, and underserved areas, and for helping with communications after natural disasters. The idea may sound a bit crazy—and that’s part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon—but there’s solid science behind it.

Whether Project Loon’s vision makes technical sense is a worthy question. But even if it passes technical muster, the prospect of using globe-circling high-altitude balloons as communications platforms raises complex legal issues regarding airspace access and control.

It’s the distance, and not the altitude, that creates the primary concerns. Thousands of high-altitude weather balloons are launched without incident every week. However, (with some notable exceptions) weather balloons usually stay aloft for only a few hours and remain within the airspace of a single country during their flight.

By contrast, flying a balloon around the world is hard—and not just because of the engineering difficulties involved. The biggest challenge can often be finding a route that steers clear of countries unwilling to grant overflight permission. Back in the 1990s, attempts at around-the-world manned balloon flights generated complex diplomatic dances and were even thwarted completely by airspace permission concerns. Obtaining approval from China proved critical in enabling the first successful nonstop balloon circumnavigation in 1999 by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones. Steve Fossett’s successful 2002 solo balloon circumnavigation took place deep in the southern hemisphere, where much of the route is over water.

Google says that the Project Loon balloons can be “steered by rising or descending to an altitude with winds moving in the desired direction.” To a certain extent, that’s true. But when the only thing you can control is altitude, steering options can be pretty limited. Unless you’re willing to ditch or to limit flights to latitudes well south of the equator, sooner or later some of the balloons will end up in the airspace of countries that don’t welcome their presence. And, while Silicon Valley’s ask-forgiveness-not-permission culture might pay off in many contexts, international aviation won’t be one of them.

So what does that mean for Google’s vision to ring the globe with Internet access points drifting in the stratosphere? A Google spokesperson said the company is “hoping that the launch can start the conversation and begin to spec out how this might work on a larger scale.” Google coordinated with local air traffic control in last week’s New Zealand tests, and is “looking forward to see where this can go.” The next phase of the project will reportedly involve hundreds of balloons flying at a latitude of approximately 40 degrees south, which would take them over a lot of open ocean but also include transits over New Zealand, southern Argentina, and southern Chile.

And then what? In a “Facts and Figures” post about Project Loon, Google notes that “approximately two thirds of the world’s population today doesn’t have Internet access.” However, reaching more than a small fraction of this underserved population using Project Loon would require expanding coverage to more tropical and northern latitudes. That, in turn, would require using the airspace of countries that are certainly not going to permit regular overflights of communications balloons operated by an American company. In other words, regardless of the potential technical merits, a truly global system of Google-operated Internet access balloons isn’t happening anytime soon.

But that doesn’t mean the underlying idea of using high-altitude balloons as communications platforms is flawed. For applications such as disaster relief, it’s a well-recognized and potentially highly effective approach that companies like Space Data Corporation have been honing for many years [PDF]. To the extent that Project Loon can help improve the state of the art in rapid communications system deployment, it’s a worthy effort.