Just imagine how these “floating cell phone towers” could help spur e-book use in developing countries, among other applications. TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows mentioned this back in July, when Google was rolling out Project Loon in Sri Lanka.
But what about the U.S.?
Well, it turns out that Google has filed an FCC application to allow a two-year test of some kind in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, in the wake of an experiment in the small Nevada town of Winnemucca.
The test would begin January 1. Apparently—it’s not certain to me—Google would carry on the test as part of Loon.
Let’s hope Google in time will do this full strength here in the U.S. When I Skyped to an old friend in rural Georgia, the conversation between the humans flowed smoothly. But video was blurry and often stalled. Susan Glinert Stevens is stuck with primitive DSL.
At least Susan has a Net connection of some kind. Even basic wireless phone connections can be challenges in isolated areas in the States. Consider the plight of, say, people in some Indian tribes.
Needless to say, under Project Loon, e-books could piggyback on other applications. Some speculate this is now independent of Google’s FI plan for lower-cost cell and Internet service, but who knows what might happen in the future?
At first, Google people say, the basic question was whether the balloons, bearing solar-powered radios and floating around at 60,000-90,000 feet, would work. Now, with that out of the way, the focus is on lowering costs and increasing transmission speeds. Google is partnering with local phone companies and relying on the LTE protocol, which leaves open plenty of possibilities.
While the technical potential of Project Loon intrigues me, let’s hope that the people will still pay attention to the human factors. The One Laptop per Child initiative learned the hard way that teachers needed to be trained to use OLPC laptops properly with students. Tech by itself just can’t replace good teaching. Self-directed learning can go only so far in most cases.
Similarly let’s hope that, here and abroad, Google will astutely consider the social ramifications of its technology, which it will offer in partnership with local phone companies. Digital divides aren’t just about gadgets: they’re also about how the hardware is used (or not used).
Compared to the well off, poor people typically end caring more about technology for entertainment than about its educational and research uses
Ideally one end result from Project Loon will actually be an increase in literacy for all, as opposed just to YouTube watching. I’m not saying, “No YouTube for the masses.” Rather Google should recognize the need for balance even if Hollywood-style entertainment and other kinds create more demand for bandwidth and other commercial opportunities than do e-books and the like.
A balanced approach would more likely happen if Google also partners with other organizations, notably schools and libraries. National digital library endowments, anyone—augmented by charitable efforts such as Google.org?
Google could encourage the endowments’ formation both in the U.S. and abroad. It could provide planning and technological expertise and help spread around best practices, as well as pay for pilot projects in areas ranging from content to professional development for librarians and teachers. A huge gap exists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has accomplished plenty for libraries, but it is actually winding down its Global Libraries program, which has received just a smidgen of the foundation’s money despite all the talk years ago that Gates would be a veritable Carnegie II.
Although social reasons exist for Google to promote national digital library endowments, pragmatic ones abound as well.
Countries are more likely to cooperate on matters such as spectrum usage, for instance, if Google cares sufficiently about educational and cultural applications. What’s more, the commercial side of Google in some cases could serve as a contractor for various digital library projects. These e-libraries could not just loan out books but also link to a variety of e-book and p-book stores (especially local ones), including Google Play Books, to encourage book ownership.
Detail: Google isn’t the only tech company with large-scale plans to bring Net access to remote areas. Facebook has undertaken its own efforts. The downside is that many say they are not sufficiently respectful of net neutrality and would favor Facebook’s own services.