Google’s Secret US Loon Test Implicates the FCC, FAA, EPA, State, & DOD/NSA

Are several arms of the U.S. Government giving Google special treatment to enable it to secretly conduct a nationwide, two-year, test of Project Loon -- Google’s ambitious scheme to be the first company to commercialize the stratosphere -- in a manner that risks public safety, and environmental, and other harms?

Or are some agencies like the FAA, EPA, State, or DOD/NSA largely in the dark and unaware of how Google’s “secret commercially-valuable plan” awaiting approval at the FCC could disrupt fulfillment of their government duties?  


In a nutshell, Google is asking the FCC to very quickly and quietly approve a commercially-secret national experimental radio license for a high-altitude balloon broadband ISP network that Google calls Project Loon and brands as “Balloon-Powered Internet for Everyone.” 

The circumstances surrounding Google’s commercial request for exceptional secrecy are suspicious and raise more questions than answers. Google claims it wants to protect its trade secrets when it looks more like cover for Google getting special political treatment from the government that is not available to other companies.

One speculative, but plausible theory is Google may be hiding information that indicates it may bid in the FCC’s upcoming 600 MHz incentive auction, as a strategic keystone of Alphabet’s “Access” subsidiary’s “moon-shot” effort to ultimately divert the roughly half of the world’s Internet traffic that already passes through Google’s data centers off of competitive networks and onto its own end-to-end, largely-wireless, Android-driven, “GoogleNet” of  Alphabet-Google owned/controlled spectrum, software, devices, and internet access infrastructure.

However, Google’s unprecedented plans to supply global broadband access via high-altitude balloons and/or drones raise many serious safety, environmental and national security issues that Google clearly does not want aired publicly. This analysis spotlights the serious hidden risks that this bold technological experiment and ISP approach presents to aviation safety, the environment, and foreign relations.   

Suspicious Circumstances Warrant Close Scrutiny

The exceptional timing, the expected quick FCC turnaround, and the extraordinary level of secrecy of Google’s FCC request to test a new national public wireless ISP service, are collectively suspicious for these reasons.

Google otherwise preaches universal openness. Google has long publicly led the charge for maximal ISP network management transparency. And the FCC’s Open Internet Order requires Google ISP services like Google Fiber and Google Fi’s wireless broadband MVNO with Sprint and T-Mobile, (which implicitly are key components of this secret national ISP experiment) to be fully transparent to the public to ensure they abide by net neutrality.

At a minimum such unnecessarily comprehensive secrecy in the face of the FCC’s commitment to ISP transparency would smack of special treatment for Google, just like the special treatment Google enjoyed in the Open Internet Order by getting its non-ISP-traffic exempted from CALEA and exempted from the FCC’s new interconnection authority, and given that Google is audaciously petitioning the FCC to effectively delegate its wireless regulatory raison d’être of preventing radio interference to Google for ISP devices like WiFi routers. This shows Google is not shy in leaning on the FCC for special treatment unavailable to other companies.   

Consider that Google applied to the FCC to secretly test nationally a new public wireless ISP service on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when Google knows the fewest people would be paying attention. Normally Google skydives, trumpets, or self-drives to get reporters to learn about their moon-shot innovations, like Fiber, Fi, Android, Glass, self-driving cars, etc. The one publication that covered the FCC filing, Business Insider, reached out to Google for comment and tellingly has still has not heard back from Google in the last three weeks.  

Also consider that Google wants to start the experiment January 1, 2016. No other company could expect to get USG approval for such a complex, national experiment in just ~2-3 weeks (given Thanksgiving, Hanukah, and Christmas) on one of the most far-reaching, and unprecedented, national experimental radio license requests the FCC may have ever considered. Google’s request clearly warrants (as this analysis documents) significant due diligence, FCC interagency coordination, and international coordination (Canada, Mexico, the EU, Russia, China and others). 

What is Google Likely Hiding with its Extreme Secrecy?

One theory is Google’s interest in confidentiality is less about protecting its “secret commercially valuable plan,” and more about not attracting public attention to how politically wired Google is that it can confidently ram through multiple simultaneous government agency approvals in a very tight timeframe, despite apparent public safety, environmental and other issues.

Given how much commercial favoritism Google has enjoyed from the U.S. Executive Branch, (see evidence here, here, here, here, here, and here), it understandably does not want any more public attention on the unseemly special treatment Google routinely expects the USG to lavish on Google.  

Another theory that is speculative, but plausible for why Google is being so secretive is that it may not want to tip its hand that it may be planning a surprise bid in the FCC’s upcoming 600 MHz incentive auction of TV airwaves directly or indirectly through a proxy.

Why could Google be interested in buying 600 MHz spectrum?

Remember Google’s unique high-altitude design approach starts with its high-altitude balloon/drone “cell towers” being situated at a minimum of ~12 miles away from any given Project Fi broadband LTE user on the ground and potentially much further away because always-moving-balloons/drones will rarely be exactly overtop of a broadband user, but probably many miles away from the user -- in addition to being many miles up in the sky (12-18 miles.)

Moreover, the most powerful spectrum available to Google, 600 MHz, could be necessary for Google’s balloon service to reliably go through building walls and floors especially, when the high-altitude receiver/transmitter is at least 12 miles and maybe 20-30+ miles from the user.

It is important to give credit where credit is due here. Google’s apparent insight about high-altitude balloons/drones is that the higher the cell “tower”, i.e. balloon/drone, the farther range one can expect to reach with one’s spectrum and service. Being ~12+ miles in the air is a un-precedented “tall” wireless cell “tower” that may enable 600 MHz LTE to have a much larger propagation range, this enabling fewer balloons or drones than otherwise would be needed terrestrially.

Regardless, if Google has long-term wireless ambitions, (which is obvious that it does given Android, Fi and its overall “mobile-first” business strategy) it may look at the 600 MHz incentive auction spectrum as a once-in-a-generation business opportunity to fulfill its goal of being the most comprehensive ISP via an unconventional high-altitude network.

What does Google say it is up to?

Google has applied to the FCC confidentially for approval of a nationwide, two-year, “experimental radio service license,” apparently to test its Project Loon, to provide high-speed, broadband Internet service anywhere in the fifty United States and Puerto Rico, via a swarm-network of “thousands” of largely uncontrolled high-altitude balloon transmitter/receivers -- per Business Insiderreporting.

Google explains Loon as “Balloon-powered Internet for Everyone.”

Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters. … Project Loon balloons float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather. … approximately 20 km [~12 miles] above the Earth’s surface in the stratosphere. …”

“By partnering with Telecommunications companies [Google Fi with Sprint/T-Mobile] to share cellular spectrum we’ve enabled people to connect to the balloon network directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. The signal is then passed across the balloon network and back down to the global Internet on Earth. …” [bold added]

“Looking ahead, Project Loon will continue to expand the pilot, with the goal of establishing a ring of uninterrupted connectivity at latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, so that pilot testers in these latitudes can receive continuous service via balloon-powered Internet.”

This analysis would be remiss, if it did not also suggest that this secret “experimental radio service license” could also involve Google’s other high-altitude broadband experimental technology, Project Titan’s high-altitude drone aircraft.

In 2014, Google acquired Titan Aerospace, which produces high-altitude (i.e. 12-18 miles up) drone aircraft that are the size of a Boeing 767, solar-powered, and can fly non-stop for years. So this experimental license could be for balloon network, a drone network, or a hybrid balloon-drone high-altitude network capable of exchanging gigabit transfers of data. In 2014, Google also applied for another experimental license for Titan, which tellingly was much less secretive than the current one.    

What issues may require more Governmental vetting of this experimental license?

FAA -- The potential big safety problem here is that Google apparently has not secured safety approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) because of the serious potential safety risks to aviation, which this unanticipated technological approach logically causes.

Consider the ramifications for the entire Google high-altitude commercialization model, if just one of the eventual “thousands” of Google-Loon’s four-story-tall, high-altitude balloons, that have a working lifespan of about 100 days, were to accidentally go dark from a malfunction of any kind, plummet and then get ingested in a jet engine or wrapped around a propeller of one of the severaltthousands of U.S. or foreign aviation flights flying daily -- below them. Such an accident could be catastrophic for the hit aircraft.

By design, these balloons are largely-uncontrollable by Google as they traverse FAA-controlled commercial air space from 18,000-60,000 feet when they either launch to ascend twelve miles or when they descend twelve miles to land… or crash.

What if the balloons got hacked by malefactors and went dark, for the purposes of dropping the balloons on top of the most congested airspace below, potentially threatening to bring down multiple aircraft.

There is a reason why global commercial aviation did not have to factor in safety threats from above (other than space junk and meteorites), because no one envisioned an entity like Google mass-commercializing the proverbial roof of commercial airspace with potentially as many aircraft above commercial aviation space -- as currently use commercial aviation space.

In other words, our global aviation model, air traffic control system, and air safety regulations never envisioned that anyone would try and stack a second unregulated commercial airspace on top of the existing highly-regulated and controlled airspace in such a potentially dangerous technological fashion. 

Like most everything in Google’s business model, Google gravitates toward regulatory arbitrage. It has chosen a business model to exploit a largely unregulated, uncontrolled, mid-stratosphere space between commercial airspace and commercial space regulated by treaty – because it knows no other entity would secretly take such risks with others’ safety.   

It is important to note that these balloons can naturally circumnavigate the globe in different ways and speeds because the winds at that high-altitude swirl around the earth in varying speeds, directions, and predictability. Apparently Google wants to be the only one to accumulate the data on how these highest altitude wind currents behave to seize an unbeatable first-mover advantage.

At a minimum, largely-uncontrollable balloon aircraft in this experiment could fly over foreign airspace, requiring coordination with foreign air traffic control authorities so they can take appropriate precautions for this increase in aviation safety risk from above.  

Apparently Google has not notified or gotten the approval of the FAA for this national two-year experiment in all fifty states and Puerto Rico. As a common courtesy to an implicated fellow public safety agency, the FCC should provide the FAA with an un-redacted copy of Google’s secret experiment just above the FAA’s regulated commercial airspace ceiling of 60,000 feet.

If Google was not given political special treatment exempting them from normal FAA safety protocols, Google at a minimum, should present a safety analysis to the FAA on how they will coordinate with the FAA Commercial Airspace Office for the safety implications for commercial airspace, and with the Office that handles Special Use Airspace, like military air maneuvers, so that Google’s meandering, largely uncontrollable, high-altitude balloon flotilla does not interfere in any way with U.S. military, U.S. law enforcement, or first-responder training exercises.

The FAA would also want to ensure that each of the potentially thousands of largely uncontrollable high altitude balloons would be retrofitted with a GPS transponder and back-up power for the transponder so that the balloon’s exact location could be picked up by a nearby aircraft in time to enable evasive action if necessary.

Hopefully, Google and the FCC appreciate that all aircraft are expected to have these safety transponders by 2020.  Simply, has the FCC or FAA asked Google if it plans to use safety GPS transponders as expected?

EPA:  Given longstanding environmental concerns and sensitivities about threats to the atmosphere’s ozone layer, climate change, and plastic pollution of the oceans, wouldn’t the EPA and foreign environmental authorities want to openly consider the environmental impact of Google’s planned unregulated commercialization of the largely-virgin stratosphere with “thousands” of high-altitude “Loon” balloons and/or hundreds of “Titan” drones that are Boeing 767 size covered with solar-panels?   

As for Project Loon, “thousands” of largely-uncontrollable, four-story-high, disposable, non-biodegradable, polyethylene plastic balloons would be circumnavigating much of the world eventually, and thus would operate and sometimes come down over the 71% part of the earth’s surface that is water.

Given environmental concerns of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, it would take a small navy for Google to assure people that they would not pollute and could locate and retrieve potentially hundreds or thousands of floating, non-biodegradable, polyethylene plastic balloons that are roughly 36x12 meters in size, which would come down over water and not land. Like other plastics endanger sea mammals and other sea life, exceptionally large floating polyethylene balloons could also be expected to entangle and endanger sea life, like plastic bags and fish netting already do.

State Department and DOD/NSA:  Is the FCC coordinating with the State Department and the Defense Department so that they can notify and coordinate when Google’s high-altitude balloons leave U.S. airspace and potentially traverse over Europe, Russia and China? Remember Google plans to operate its flotilla of thousands of balloons at the same altitude as military reconnaissance aircraft do, and like the U.S U-2 spy-plane did that Russia shot down in the U-2 incident at the beginning of the Cold War.

Russia and China are not likely to welcome Google high-altitude balloons or drones flying over their airspace and military facilities, given that at a minimum it is in the public record that Google has the mapping software contract for the National Geo-spatial Intelligence Agency.  

Does the FCC know if the DOD and State Department are comfortable with Google potentially precipitating international incidents by launching a potential flotilla of largely uncontrollable high altitude balloons at military reconnaissance altitude when a Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine in 2014 and a military plane was shot down over Turkey just last month?

Lastly, given that Google is requesting permission for a nationwide experiment that includes Puerto Rico, is this somehow a Google trial run for Google to be commercially first in supplying broadband Internet service to Cuba? And if so, will the FCC and the State Department help other U.S. companies equally in providing commercial Internet service to Cuba as well?

In a word, Google and the FCC need to be much more “open” about this secret skynet.


Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, an emergent enterprise risk consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, some of which are Google competitors, and Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests. He is also author of “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.” Cleland has testified before both the Senate and House antitrust subcommittees on Google and also before the relevant House oversight subcommittee on Google’s privacy problems.


GoogleNet Disintermediation Series

Part 1:   Will Google become Softbank-Sprint’s Silent Partner? [10-18-12]

Part 2:   DropCam Key to Google’s New Ubiquitous Surveillance Network [6-24-14]

Part 3:   Google’s WorldWideWatch Over the WorldWideWeb [9-14]

Part 4:   The GoogleNet Playbook & Zero-Pricing – A Special Report [11-18-14]

Part 5:   What is Google Really Up to in Wireless? [1-30-15] 

Part 6:   Google Android has 90% OS share because Apple iOS isn't a direct competitor [5-29-15]

Part 7:   The FTC-Created Google Android Mobile Monopoly is Anti-Privacy by Design [6-5-15]

Part 8:   Widespread Wiretapping is “How Google Works” [6-24-15]

Part 9:   Google Epitomizes Cyber Systemic Risk [9-11-15]

Part 10: Google Buys Jibe to Force Android as Web’s Default Means of Communications [10-7-15]

Part 11: Google’s Gambit to Dominate Spectrum Access Administration

Part 12: Google’s Secret US Loon Test Implicates the FCC, FAA, EPA, State, & DOD/NSA [12-17-15]