Google to launch constellations of broadband balloons and planes this year – Sundar Pichai

2 Mar 2015

Google's products chief Sundar Pichai on stage at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain

Google’s product chief intends to see smartphones in the hands of more than 4bn people in the developing world in the next five years and the company plans to launch the first broadband balloons and airplanes soon.

In the coming months, the internet search giant will launch combined constellations of broadband-transmitting balloons and airplanes in collaboration with mobile carriers to bring broadband to rural areas or disaster zones, Google’s products chief Sundar Pichai told the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

Pichai said Android is continuing its march, and he said he was particularly excited at how the operating system could be a key enabler for virtual reality (VR). “In 2015, VR is going to be powered by Android as its foundation. We care about reaching all form factors.”

Last year, Google launched Project Loon in New Zealand and Australia in collaboration with telecoms company Telstra, but the plan is to expand with fully working Loon balloon clouds working in tandem with Google’s Project Titan project to transmit broadband via airplane to underserved areas.

Pichai showed the audience a map which revealed 4bn people on the planet are under-served with broadband. “We are working on big projects to fix this. We always look at urban and rural areas and where supply and demand are out of match, we step in. We’ve been doing this with Google Fiber in the US.”

He said Google has also rolled out Google Fiber in Uganda in order to provide the backbone for 4G in collaboration with local operators.

He said under Project Loon, which involves floating massive balloons to more than 50,000 feet, is coming to life.

“The plan is to float balloons in the sky to work as floating cell towers and we are working with Telefónica and others to expand this idea of floating cell towers.”

Nothing loony about these balloons

Pichai added Google’s bigger plan is to work its Project Titan and create entire constellations of balloons and planes.

“In the case of disaster relief, they will just float over the disaster area to provide connectivity.

“We are working to create a backbone to provide connectivity to the world and we are working at scale with carrier partners to make a big difference in people’s lives.”

Pichai, who was promoted to oversee all of Google’s key projects including Android, admitted that when he first heard about Project Loon he was sceptical.

“Big balloons that can float up to low-pressure altitude at 55,000 feet and transmit broadband? The notion that you could run anything like that at scale sounded to me like science fiction. But we have made tremendous progress. Testing is being done with our carrier partners and I am very excited because I believe this has a role to play also in developed countries. Even in urban areas you struggle with peak demand situations so being able to move broadband constellations into place when you need them is a huge opportunity.”

Google’s ambitions to connect the next 4bn people are very similar to those of social network Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s project. Zuckerberg will be speaking from the same stage at Mobile World Congress this afternoon.

Pichai said there was no friction with Facebook as they both share the same objectives.

“I am excited they are doing it. No one company can do it by itself. We are happy to work with them on this. Having said that, what we are trying to do is built a broadband backbone to create physical connectivity at scale across the globe.

“At a high level what Facebook and what Google are trying to do is complementary and I am glad they are both doing it because we need big resources to do that.”

But is there a business model in the long term? “If you take the long-term view and do something that delivers value to users, the business model will work out. This philosophy has worked for us on search and we are very comfortable taking a long-term view.”

Computing is a big part of what Google does

Commenting on his promotion to head of products, Pichai said he works with Google CEO Larry Page on the big bets that Google takes and his appointment was a way to divide and conquer.

“We spend a lot of time on core goals but also on the next three to five to 10 years ahead.

“Computing is a big part of what we do and if you look at the scale of Android and what it has done, it’s incredible.”

Pichai said the vision with Android One is to put inexpensive but high-powered computing devices in the hands of the next 4bn people to connect to the internet.

He said large-screened phones are driving the market and he is excited by what Samsung could achieve with the S6 and S6 Edge.

“We always knew that the iPhone 6 was going to be a big deal for Apple, they refresh their smartphones significantly every two years and we knew from Android that bigger phones were going to have a bigger impact.

“It’s mobile’s moment right now – The Economist had a cover this week about this being the year of the smartphone. Samsung is a great company and the new devices represent the state of the art of what’s in a smartphone. They are focused and we are excited to see what comes next.”

While Google left the critically large Chinese marketplace a few years ago, it looks like the success of manufacturers such as Xiaomi and One Plus is luring Google back and Pichai said the time is right to launch Google Play in China.

“China is a phenomenon unto itself. It is important to remember most of what is happening is powered by Android. There’s a great Android community there that works very hard. We would love to see Google services in China.

“There is a lot of demand for Google Play in China. There are a lot of apps out there with malware but there is an option to tackle this by getting Google Play working in China. It will take time but we hope 2015 will be the year but there is a lot of work left for us to do first.”

‘All innovations in computing happen at the intersection of hardware and software’

On the thorny subject of Google becoming a mobile operator or an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator), Pichai said plans are being made to launch mobile services but not with a view to displacing or competing with operators.

“Everything we do we take an ecosystem approach. We have always tried to push the boundaries of what’s next and we do this with hardware and software. We do the same with communications but it’s not our intent to take on the market.

“All innovations in computing happen at the intersection of hardware and software. With Nexus devices, for example, we choose to work with OEMs but we never do Nexus at scale.

“We do it at enough scale to achieve impact, at the stage where it is important to get the hardware, software and connectivity working together.

“We don’t intend to be a network operator at scale and we are actually working with carrier partners.

“You will see us announce it in the coming months, but the goal is to drive innovations in the market at scale.”

On the subject of mobile wallets and Android Pay, Pichai said Google is attempting to provide a platform that will complement services such as Google Wallet and Samsung Pay.

“Payments are an important use case for mobile this year and it makes sense to make payments in the online and offline world seamless.

“Android Pay is an API layer that enables all payments to be done in a standardised way for any bank or card provider. Google Wallet will be a customer of Android Pay. It will also complement Samsung Pay and we will try to work closely with Samsung and align our services.”

On wearables, Pichai said he is as curious as the next person to see the arrival of the Apple Watch, but doesn’t consider it a threat.

“To me, wearables are an exciting category. People forget Android’s impact and how we built on that. When you work on an ecosystem you are moving many players together and a variety of use-case scenarios including payments, health and fitness have emerged. It’s exciting for us to bring it all together. Like us, Apple takes a long view and I am keen to see what they come up with. Competition is good for us.”

On the subject of whether Google plans to expand its retail offering, he said the plan is to do enough Google Retail stores to make an impact but not compete with the market. “Google Retail will be no different than Nexus, it will be smaller scale stuff to push ideas.”

The time of mobile is now

Pichai also confirmed that platforms such as Photos and Hangouts, which were born on Google+, are to be spun out as single products.

On the subject of Android One, Pichai said the vision is to have US$100 Android phones in the developing worlds in one year and US$50 smartphones within two years.

“The PC industry reached 1.7bn people after 30 years, but smartphones have reached 2bn people and we are well on our way to a platform that will reach 4bn to 5bn people with a powerful computer in their hand.

Looking to the future, Pichai said he was excited about the potential of new paradigms in computing.

“People underestimate the concrete steps that wearable devices will take and I am excited about new categories, like virtual reality devices connected to the cloud.

“I am interested in machine learning and artificial intelligence and we are working very hard to make these computing experiences more seamless and intelligent for users. We are at an exciting stage where can get more out of computing than ever before.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years