A Would-Be Wi-Fi Par­adise

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - TECHNOLOGY - −Tim Hig­gins “They would be the first coun­try to do it”

“Fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments may need to re­think how they reg­u­late and li­cense ve­hi­cles for the fu­ture,” said Chair­man John Thune (R-S.D.). “We must be care­ful not to stymie in­no­va­tion be­cause of a lack of imag­i­na­tion.”

Within a decade, 1 in 8 cars sold around the world will have au­ton­o­mous fea­tures, mak­ing them a $42 bil­lion-ayear mar­ket, Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group es­ti­mates. Xavier Mos­quet, a se­nior part­ner for BCG’s au­to­mo­tive prac­tice, says per­fect­ing the tech­nol­ogy re­quires mass ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, which in turn re­quires con­sis­tent le­gal stan­dards.

Im­prov­ing car de­signs through trial and er­ror shouldn’t be the pub­lic’s task, says John Simp­son, an ad­vo­cate at non­profit Con­sumer Watch­dog. Google’s test cars have logged more than 1 mil­lion miles on pub­lic roads over the years yet still oc­ca­sion­ally need driv­ers to take over to avoid a crash. Dur­ing the Se­nate hear­ing, Duke Univer­sity ro­bot­ics pro­fes­sor Mary Louise Cum­mings warned that self-driv­ing cars aren’t ready for mass de­ploy­ment and said NHTSA shouldn’t is­sue stan­dards for them any­time soon. “There is no ques­tion that some­one’s go­ing to die in this tech­nol­ogy,” she said. “The ques­tion is when and what can we do to min­i­mize that.”

The feds aren’t mov­ing at light­ning speed; NHTSA has planned some pub­lic meet­ings over the next few months. For now, Sil­i­con Val­ley lob­by­ing group TechNet says it’s track­ing about 80 state bills that could af­fect au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles. “Clearly some of them are go­ing to be com­pet­ing with Cal­i­for­nia in terms of try­ing to be the re­search bed or the de­ploy­ment bed of self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles,” says David Strick­land, a for­mer NHTSA head who lob­bies for the law firm Ven­able.

Dur­ing March’s an­nual South by South­west con­fer­ence in Austin, Mayor Steve Adler wel­comed other U.S. may­ors to the city to show off the pod­like Google cars crawl­ing around the state cap­i­tal. In Utah, state Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Robert Spendlove has pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to study au­ton­o­mous de­signs and says he hopes his state will be more le­nient than Cal­i­for­nia. He wants to be “en­cour­ag­ing the test­ing, en­cour­ag­ing the op­er­a­tion,” he says, “rather than be­ing re­ally heavy on regulation.” The bot­tom line Google is push­ing for fed­eral pre­emp­tion of laws on self-driv­ing cars, though some states are ea­ger to get them on the road. Sri Lanka hopes to fill its skies with Google’s Loon bal­loons Sri Lanka has en­joyed an era of strong eco­nomic growth since its bloody, 26-year civil war ended in 2009. To keep it go­ing, the govern­ment is try­ing to make the is­land na­tion a tech­nol­ogy hub. It’s in­vest­ing in new un­der­sea In­ter­net cables, putting money be­hind star­tups, and work­ing with Mi­crosoft to em­brace cloud com­put­ing. It’s also been woo­ing Google and Face­book to host tests for some of their most am­bi­tious ex­per­i­ments, from self-driv­ing cars to drones. First up: the bal­loons.

Google’s Pro­ject Loon is an ef­fort to de­velop high-al­ti­tude bal­loons that can bring In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity to re­mote ar­eas. The tech­nol­ogy has been tested over the past cou­ple of years, but not at scale. Rama, a quasi-pub­lic com­pany con­trolled by ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Chamath Pal­i­hapi­tiya and the Sri Lankan govern­ment, aims to do just that. Google sent the first Loon bal­loon above Sri Lanka in Fe­bru­ary, and the govern­ment says it’s work­ing with the com­pany to blan­ket the coun­try with cov­er­age from an­other dozen.

Within a year, Pal­i­hapi­tiya says, Loon bal­loons will turn the In­dian Ocean coun­try, which is about the size of West Vir­ginia, into one big Wi-Fi zone, giv­ing Google the first real sense of whether Loon can be com­mer­cially vi­able. “This is re­ally a pro­found thing the govern­ment has spon­sored and is re­ally push­ing,” says Pal­i­hapi­tiya, an early Face­book em­ployee who runs Sil­i­con Val­ley ven­ture firm So­cial Cap­i­tal. “If we can do this in Sri Lanka, that sets the tone for the rest of the world.”

Un­der a deal Pal­i­hapi­tiya ne­go­ti­ated, Google is lead­ing the Loon launches, de­vel­op­ment, and main­te­nance, and Rama will run the soft­ware to con­trol ac­cess to the bal­loons’ In­ter­net con­nec­tions and han­dle billing. Peo­ple will still pay lo­cal oper­a­tors for data, and car­ri­ers will pay Rama an as-yet-undis­closed fee to help ferry traf­fic.

The Loon fleet could of­fer a cheaper al­ter­na­tive to un­der­sea In­ter­net cables, which pass through the re­gional choke points of Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong. Car­ri­ers in de­vel­op­ing Asian and South Amer­i­can na­tions pay more than 10 times the band­width prices their Euro­pean and U.S. coun­ter­parts do, re­searcher TeleGeog­ra­phy es­ti­mates. (The me­dian whole­sale price for a monthly 10-gi­ga­bit-per-se­cond con­nec­tion in Los An­ge­les or Frank­furt is $1; in Mum­bai, it’s $15.) Sri Lanka’s data use is grow­ing 45 per­cent a year and will likely do so for the next decade, the United Na­tions es­ti­mates.

In­creas­ing the coun­try’s band­width is cru­cial to achiev­ing Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena’s goal of pro­pel­ling the na­tion into the ranks of de­vel­oped economies through tech­nol­ogy. The av­er­age In­ter­net speed avail­able to the coun­try’s broad­band cus­tomers is about 5.1 megabits per se­cond, Aka­mai Tech­nolo­gies es­ti­mates—bet­ter than in In­dia (2.5 Mbps) or China (3.7 Mbps), but a frac­tion of the av­er­age speed in the U.S. (11.7 Mbps), Sin­ga­pore (12.5 Mbps), or Hong Kong

bil­lion The pro­jected mar­ket for au­ton­o­mous car

fea­tures in 2025 ① To pre­pare for launch, the Loon bal­loon is filled with gas

Fill ’er up ② Shut­ter doors keep gusts from car­ry­ing it away too early

③ When ready, tech­ni­cians ex­pose the bal­loon to the wind

④ It’s sup­posed to hover 14 miles above the earth’s sur­face, beam­ing down Wi-Fi con­nec­tiv­ity

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