google, project loon

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The world knows that the idea of beaming high speed Internet from the skies to poor communities around the world using high altitude balloons is closely associated with Google. As a matter of fact, since 2011, Project Loon had being variously described as one of Google’s most ambitious project. And the world has being watching closely as Project Loon nears full deployment around the world.

google, project loon, space data

But there is now a little spanner in the works. A big one actually, because it threatens to scuttle a project a lot of money was invested in. Here are the facts: a company known as Space Data Corporation based in Chandler, Arizona, is claiming that Google stole the idea of Project Loon from them. And they are not just talking about it, they have backed their words with action by filing a suit in US District Court for Northern California. The suit listed points to back up their assertions concerning the issue. In no particular order, here are some of the supporting evidence as alleged by Space Data Corporation.

  1. Space Data said, in 2004, the company started beaming wireless internet commercially from high-altitude balloons moving around the stratosphere. That was 7 years after the company was founded in 1997.
  2. Space Data claims it received patents to two technologies which Project Loon breached. The first is a patent to provide connectivity through balloons connected in a network which was filed in 1999. The second patent filed in 2001 deals with how to bring down the balloons after a successful tour in the stratosphere.
  3. Space Data, at the moment, offer balloon-based Internet wireless services in Alaska and new Mexico. Though these services are not widely used, Space Data has already gotten licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to provide them. The services are known as SkySat and SkySite.
  4. In February 2008, several Google executives which included the Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, visited Space Data’s facilities in Arizona. While they were there, they were shown round the facilities including plans for balloon-based wireless service. The visit was even reported by the World Street Journal.
  5. Finally, Google began launching its owns balloons in 2013. That is, five years after Google executives visited Space Data facilities and having discussions with them about wireless internet beamed using balloons. Also, project Loon started these test launch 9 years after Space Data starting experimenting on a similar project.

The suit, which was filed earlier this week, sort several reliefs from the court. The reliefs all boiled down to making sure Google pays appropriate damages for the theft of intellectual property and to stop Google from further development of Project Loon. Here are some of the reliefs sort in the 34 page suit:

  • Compensatory damages
  • Punitive and/or exemplary damages including those allowed under DTSA and California UTSA
  • Attorney’s fees;
  • Interests and costs;
  • Such further and other relief as the Court may deem proper and just.

google, project loon, space dataWith such a compelling case, one wonders how much the courts will award Space Data if they win the case. But since Project Loon is still at the development stage, I don’t believe the amount would be huge. At least for now. Unless Google started making money from Project Loon before the case is concluded.

This is not the first time Google would be heading to court to answer questions about patent infringement. Just recently, the company had a decision in its favor in the case Oracle brought against them. Oracle was demanding $9 billion for what it says was Google profiting from the code it used to create the Android OS. Oracle claimed Google stole the codes from them.

All things being equal, I foresee this case dragging for as long as the Oracle suit. Copyright/Patent infringement suits are never easy to prosecute. Hopefully, the suit does not stop the development of Project Loon. Because, anyhow you look at it, Project Loon would be of immense benefit to third world countries. Perhaps, when and if it comes on stream, it could the final piece in the quest for cheaper internet in countries like Nigeria.

Google are yet to release a statement on the accusation.


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