Lawsuit May Deflate Google’s Project Loon

UPDATE  Inside Towers reported on Google’s Loon Balloon project a few months ago; the project aims to provide high-speed internet connectivity to rural areas by flying giant balloons in the air at an altitude of 12.5 miles, covering an area of 50-miles in diameter. Essentially, this program could provide internet access to half the world’s population that lacks connectivity. But now, Project Loon is facing a lawsuit.

Phoenix, Arizona-based Space Data sued Alphabet’s “moonshot” X division last summer over Project Loon. Space Data alleged patent infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, and breach of contract related to a failed acquisition bid in 2008, reported WIRED. And then last month, they upped the ante, convincing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel most of Project Loon’s foundational patents.

Alphabet has over 36,000 patents and has never had any of them overturned to date, according to the account. Alphabet is now on the defensive against claims that it stole trade secrets. This puts a damper on Google’s plans to bring connectivity to the world, technology they heralded as “breakthrough.” Astro Teller, the X division’s Captain of Moonshots, wrote to WIRED, “Back in 2011, we had a hunch that balloons flying freely on the winds could be controlled just enough to act like floating cell phone towers in the sky.”

Filings with the FCC back in 2000 show that Space Data began experimenting with a nationwide paging service from high-altitude balloons. And in 2007, Google was looking for a back-up plan to provide coverage to 40 percent of Americans in the event it won spectrum in an FCC auction. Space Data saw an opportunity and approached Google in September 2007 and before the end of the year, talk had turned to acquisition, with an NDA in place allowing Google to perform due diligence around a possible deal. After touring the Space Data facilities and subsequently losing the spectrum auction bid, Google backed out of the venture. According to a court filing by Alphabet, “Google’s principal reason for engaging with Space Data…no longer existed, as it was apparent that Verizon had outbid Google.”

“Loon started to get huge traction in 2015,” said Space Data attorney Spencer Hosie. “It [became] clear it was going to run our company right out of business unless we did something about it. At some point, [we] had absolutely no choice. It was either fold and go away and donate 10 years of intellectual property to Google or fight to protect [our] far earlier inventions.”

A trial on the Project Loon filings is scheduled for the summer of 2019.

July 6, 2017        

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