Google Inc. has been approved to launch a nationwide experiment known as Project Loon in 2016, a balloon project aimed at expanding Google’s reach and its profit margin.
On March 17, 2016, the FCC granted permission to Google for airborne and terrestrial millimeter wave testing throughout the United States. There has been quite a bit of secrecy surrounding this approval as noted in the FCC document filed just before Thanksgiving 2015, Google asked for confidentiality (emphasis mine):
Google Inc. (Google), pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552 and Sections 0.457 and 0.459 of the Commission’s Rules, 47 C.F.R. §§ 0.457, 0.459, hereby requests that certain information provided in its above-referenced Experimental Radio Service License (Experimental License) be treated as confidential and not subject to public inspection. The designated information constitutes confidential and proprietary information that, if subject to public disclosure, would cause significant commercial, economic, and competitive harm.
(It’s also important to note the document is heavily redacted, which means confidential or sensitive information has been removed.)
What is Project Loon?
“Balloon-Powered Internet for Everyone” is the catchphrase you’ll find on Google’s Project Loon homepage. Google explains:
Many of us think of the Internet as a global community. But two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have Internet access. 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.
The goal is a network of high-altitude balloons that emit 4G LTE signals to anyone with a 4G device. By the end of 2016, Google hopes to have 100 balloons in the stratosphere, 12 miles overhead.
The balloon is made of polyethylene plastic and is partially inflated with helium for the launch. It swells to full size once in the stratosphere, where it stays afloat for 100 days or more.
Each balloon is equipped with a flight computer and battery as well as radios and antennas that relay the 4G LTE signals. (Popular Science offers an excellent explanation here.)
How will inflatable cell towers impact human health? This question seems to elude Google and the FCC. Because radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic radiation is presumed safe, the issue remains “off the radar.” This is quickly changing as studies suggest that RF exposures have numerous biological effects. (For a comprehensive compilation of studies, check out The BioIniative Report 2012.)
The World Health Organization now classifies electromagnetic radiation as a possible 2B carcinogen. (The same category as lead, DDT, and styrene.)
I measured the RF from a nearby cell tower and was surprised by the high levels. See more in the previous post The Hidden Health Effects of Cell Towers.
While the levels may be lower with a cell tower 12 miles above the ground, the fact that the air will be saturated with these invisible fields is cause for concern.
Why is Google Being So Secretive?
Part of the confidentiality request may have to do with Facebook’s plans to blanket the globe with airborne wireless technology. Facebook’s subsidiary, FCL Tech, has petitioned the FCC to test in Southern California using experimental technology created by defense contractor Raytheon. This creates a type of “wireless race,” which leaves little time to consider the long-term health implications of a new technology.
However, the secrecy issue more likely goes beyond trade secrets to keeping the public in the dark about the potential hazards of this type of technology. As noted in Net Competition’s article Google’s Secret US Loon Test Implicates the FCC, FAA, EPA, State, & DOD/NSA:
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 several thousands 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?
Clearly the less the public knows about these balloons, the better for Google.
Sometimes consumers find out the hard way. Imagine waking up to this in your front yard! (Read the story of this September 2015 failed balloon landing in suburban Los Angeles here.)
Renowned scientist Carl Sagan expressed concern about the growing technological society in an interview with Charlie Rose in 1996. Sagan lamented the average consumer’s lack of knowledge about science and technology:
If we don’t understand it, then who is making all the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in?
Furthermore, said Sagan,
We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology that no one understands. This combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces.
It’s up to us as consumers to ask questions and educate ourselves about electromagnetic radiation. It’s daunting, to say the least, but knowledge is power—especially when it comes to the proliferation of wireless radiation.
(See more about my journey in the post From Wireless to Wired – Our Family’s Journey.)
Google has dropped its slogan “Don’t be evil” and replaced it with a different directive:
Employees of Alphabet and its subsidiaries and controlled affiliates (“Alphabet”) should do the right thing – follow the law, act honorably, and treat each other with respect.
Google is conducting this nationwide experiment with little regard for human health. I urge Google and the FCC to act honorably and place a hold on Project Loon.
Are you interested in taking action against Project Loon or learning more about this type of technology? Check out GUARDS (Global Union Against Radiation Deployment From Space).