Google in talks with telecoms to pilot Project Loon in India

Google is currently talking with several Indian telecoms to help launch Project Loon, which uses balloons instead of cellular towers to provide affordable Internet access in remote areas. According to an article in the Economic Times, the company is in discussions with BSNL and other companies to pilot Project Loon in India.

Rajan Anandan, the managing director of Google India, told the newspaper that the company “can’t do a Loon pilot without partnering with a local telco. We are talking to a number of them,” adding “the government has been very supportive–we are working on a pilot and we are working our way through it. In India, the important thing is to work through things.”

Project Launch was announced in 2013 by Google X, the company’s incubator, with the ultimate goal of providing “balloon-powered Internet for everyone.” Helping people get online isn’t just an altruistic move by Google—it also helps the company build a market for its services in emerging economies.

Comparisons between Project Loon and Facebook’s Free Basics are inevitable because both projects were launched by American tech giants in order to bring Internet access to rural or underserved areas around the world. Free Basics also partners with local telecoms, but it provides access to only certain websites (including Facebook). This triggered concerns that Free Basics violates the principles of net neutrality. As a result, the program was blocked by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India earlier this month.

One important difference between the two is that Project Loon’s balloons provide LTE connections that share cellular spectrums operated by telecom companies. It may be able to avoid the problems faced by Free Basic’s by enabling free or cheaper connections to the Internet instead of a limited list of sites.

To be sure, that doesn’t guarantee that Google’s project will completely avoid regulatory issues in India. The Economic Times reported last December that the government has raised concerns about technical and security issues. Google’s chief executive officer Sundar Pichai has met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other government officials, however, and that may help pave the way for Project Loon to succeed.

According to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, there are currently over 402 million Internet users in the country. While the number is growing rapidly, thanks largely to inexpensive smartphones, that means two-thirds of India’s population still lack regular online access.