The future of internet access is on the global table with the final frontier being the rural four corners of planet Earth. As of 2014, only 14% of Africa is online with other developing countries having internet access hovering around 32%. The current question becomes, how will these remote areas get regular internet access, and who is going to be the first technology to provide it?
Well, here are 3 cool new technologies seeking to deliver future internet access across the globe:
Google is calling this “Project Loon”—an ambitious, even crazy idea (hence the tongue-in-cheek name, “loon” ). Each helium balloon will carry a solar-powered wireless transmitter capable of relaying traffic from other balloons.
– designated to be used as flying base stations with the ability to directly communicate with ground mobile devices.
– no engines.
-steered by winds in the atmosphere.
– able to change altitude by “hitching a ride” on winds blowing in different directions at different speeds.
– each balloon will be tracked by a regularly updated computer model, directing their trips around the world to avoid gaps in coverage.
In February 2014, the Loon Balloon set a flight record of 50 days. As of today, Google has created newer models capable of remaining airborne for six months or more.
According to project leader Mike Cassidy, Google has 30 years of wind-speed data to work with. By taking advantage of different wind speeds, the balloons should be able to minimize the time they spend over uninhabited areas, drifting in slow winds over populated areas while rising or falling into faster currents to speed them across oceans or deserts.
A huge advantage is the balloons’ ability to measure wind speed, which does two things: 1) improve the ability of Google’s computers to extend across the globe and 2) collect the most comprehensive set of wind data held by any one company—which Google has already promised to share with weather forecasters and climatologists.
The internet giant is taking an alternate route to providing future internet access. Rather than providing global coverage, Facebook plans to plug up specific gaps in the existing infrastructure using airborne drones.
-fly at altitudes of 20km or more, well above the level used by commercial aviation, beaming an internet connection down to users on the ground.
-communicate with other drones using lasers, relaying data until it can be passed to a ground station and on to the rest of the internet.
– able to stay airborne for months at a time, coming down only for repairs and maintenance.
– upgraded more easily than a satellite.
The firm has already completed flight test runs in Britain, where its drones are built by Ascenta, a firm Facebook acquired for $20m last year.
Compared to satellites, solar-powered drones can be upgraded much more easily since satellites are permanent once launched. On the contrary, drones can be grounded for repairs when needed. Although their area of coverage will be much smaller than low-flying satellites, drones can circle above a specific location that lacks connectivity. According to engineering director of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, Yael Maguire, “Launching a drone is always going to be cheaper than putting a satellite into orbit”.
OneWeb, a startup company based in Florida, plans to launch 648 small, relatively simple satellites into much lower orbits of 1,200 km to offer a signal delay time comparable to a fixed-line connection. It will also allow the use of much less-powerful aerials on the ground.
OneWeb will also offer its services to airlines and military customers, as well as emergency services and disaster-relief organizations. Ultimately it aims to target individual customers through service deals with local telecom firms.
Two main drawbacks of traditional geostationary satellites are their fixed state (immobility) and latency (a delay in the signal) which slows down connectivity for users. Both drawbacks are high-maintenance with pricey upkeeps. Low-flyers would aim to reduce costs and be more effective at closing gaps and beefing up internet speed.
Since low-flying satellites move closer to the ground than geostationary satellites, they will have better latency but are more complicated. Hundreds of these “low-flyers” would be needed to provide competitive coverage across the planet in contrast to big stationary satellites.
In order to cover gaps in service when one low-flying satellite “moves out of range” without the user noticing, it will require what OneWeb founder, Greg Wyler, calls “tricky signal processing”. Fortunately, companies like Qualcomm have made aerials and chips sophisticated enough to operate such immense equipment and cheap enough to mass produce.
OneWeb thinks it can open for business as soon as 2019. SpaceX estimates its satellites will be up and running in around five years. Facebook offers no specifics, except to say its drones could be operational “fairly soon”. And with the prototype success under their belt, Google projects commercial trials of its balloons to kick off by next year (2016).
Time frames aside, all companies are confident that they will succeed in truly making the web worldwide. All say that telecom firms in developing countries are eager to get on board. Well, one thing’s for certain. Whoever gets there first will truly be able to say, “It’s a small world after all”.