Sri Lanka to clear Google Loon Project impasse with ITU

Sri Lanka’s ambitious Google Loon Pilot Project initiated almost two years ago to determine this innovation as a viable project for the increasing of the country’s Internet penetration is on the verge of clearing the hurdle of spectrum issue through negotiations with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), official sources said.

Sri Lankan Ambassador/Resident Representative to UN has had several rounds of discussions with ITU authorities in Geneva to finalise the project Loon which was still in the testing phase for providing Internet access to the whole of the country, Information Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) CEO Muhunthan Canagey told.The Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) has directed the Minister of Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructure Harin Fernanado to visit Geneva for further discussions and negotiations with ITU to finalise this pilot project by allocating the required spectrum.

Mr. Canagey noted that the ITU will have to take up the issue of allocating 700MHz spectrum for high altitudes enabling Sri Lanka to test the Loon project as the island is a member country of this union.

In Sri Lanka 700MHz spectrum is used by TV broadcasters, radio broadcasters and mobile operators. Mobile operators especially find the spectrum was important as it will be necessary in the future for high speed Internet.

Sri Lanka, a member country of the ITU, has to abide by the Geneva-based agency’s regulations for the allocation of 700MHz spectrum for high altitudes such as used in the Google Loon project as it may interfere with telcos, TV and other signals operating in relatively low altitudes, he said.

Sri Lanka’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), having sought clarification from the ITU, has already informed that the required spectrum cannot be allocated for the proposed pilot project testing of Google Loon, he revealed.

However, for Government projects, the TRC would have to give free spectrum without going for the auction process. So a project such as Loon should be given the spectrum, without going through the auction process, he claimed.

Sri Lanka announced plans in February 2015 to take a 25 per cent stake of the project which uses balloons to provide high-speed Internet connectivity, in exchange for the spectrum the government will allocate for the project.

On July 28, 2015, an MOU was signed between ICTA, Google Loon and two of its affiliates Lotus Flare Holdings Ltd and Rama Co for the purpose of formalising working relationships and facilitating pilot project implementation.

This project aimed at expanding Internet penetration in Sri Lanka to 50 per cent from 22 per cent over the next two years as Long-Term Evolution (LTE) a standard for high-speed wireless communication for mobile phones and data terminals will now have to be negotiated with the ITU for its spectrum clearance.

In the meantime, Sri Lanka would provide facilities for one million free Internet users by the end of this year through the Free Public WiFi programme, Mr. Canagey disclosed.

500 more free public WiFi Hotspots are to be set up by the end of this year and provide WiFi coverage to all Grama Niladhari divisions and 3,000 more schools countrywide during this period.

Under the Google Loon project, Google has offered their unique network of balloons which have the ability to extend 4G LTE data coverage throughout Sri Lanka in collaboration with local mobile networks.

Mr. Canagey noted that Google gave the Sri Lankan Government these balloons without any charge to conduct a test to confirm if Sri Lanka would provide an adequate environment for Loon and for their new innovations.

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