The Next Big Thing

Drones and balloons could expand net access, say Facebook and Google

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 June, 2015, 6:11am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 June, 2015, 8:18am

When you open an app, surf the web or send an email, do you think about how lucky you are? You probably don't. Internet access is cheap, fast and widespread. Living the digital life in the city is painless, especially in Hong Kong, which boasts the fastest broadband speeds in the world.

Urbanites are prone to saying that technology is about freedom, and that the internet is about democracy. The UN has even declared that internet access is a basic human right. However, across much of the planet it is still a luxury, as internet costs are exorbitant, access is painfully slow and mobile signals drop out.

The internet isn't finished. The tech industry loves to talk about "the next billion" people who are expected to go online for the first time in the next couple of years, primarily in rapidly developing countries such as Brazil, India and China, and mostly via mobile phone. It's being hailed as a step-change, a chance for global commerce to grow, and a way of spreading freedom ever wider. For comparison, this group of internet users' collective purchasing power will put it on par with the world's 10th-largest economy, bigger than Russia, India or South Korea.

But even if it happens, that leaves about four billion people offline. It gets worse: the internet's reach among new users is stalling, with broadband uptake stagnating in the least developed countries, and prices rising. Fewer than a third of the people in the world's poorest countries ever use the internet.

"The infrastructure just isn't in place to bring those parts of the world online, and traditional approaches like fibre optic cable networks just aren't going to do the trick," says Liam Fisher, creative lead at London-based digital marketing agency Builtvisible, which specialises in global internet access.

"The cable network is dependent on operators deciding to install new, very expensive cables in remote areas, and they're going to do that only if it makes financial sense."

In other words, unless there's good money to be made from the people in those areas becoming subscribers, it's not likely to happen.

Such technological inequality and malaise is an affront to the digital world's biggest and most ambitious companies, all of whom want to accelerate the internet's growth whatever the cost. However, the way they want to do it is not just surprising, it's downright insane.

Facebook's plan is to increase the number of smartphone users in remote areas and get them online. The giant social media network's Connectivity Lab has come up with a novel plan to bring the web to people in sparsely populated areas via unmanned Wi-fi drones. The social network plans to fly solar battery-powered drones at 20,000 metres - above regulated airspace and in a layer of the atmosphere that is largely free from strong winds and bad weather - to broadcast a powerful signal to city-sized spaces on the surface for months at a time. This is no pie-in-the-sky idea; Facebook expects to have a drone ready soon.

Similarly stratospheric thinking comes from Google, whose chairman, Eric Schmidt, predicted just a couple of years ago that the entire world would be online by 2020. If that's going to happen, his company is going to have to get to work, and fast. Cue Project Loon, a bizarre concept to put a network of Wi-fi balloons between 10km and 60km up to help fill coverage gaps across the globe. Using software algorithms to determine where its balloons need to go, they will move between the different layers of wind in the stratosphere to create a huge, but movable, Wi-fi network.

The Loon balloons are designed to create extra web capacity for specific locations in times of crisis, such as after a natural disaster. Given what's just happened in Nepal, where an earthquake left one of the world's poorest countries in dire need of communications infrastructure, that's a compelling idea. What's more, Google bought solar-powered drone maker Titan Aerospace last year, so it has the ability to make this happen.

"Loon is interesting because it's based on large numbers of inexpensive devices providing a wide area of coverage, mostly focused on deprived areas," says Fisher, of Builtvisible.

"If it comes to fruition, something like Loon is bound to be a better option than satellite connections, especially given that it negates the need for expensive rocket launches to put satellites into space, but it will still pale compared with a traditional cable connection."

Access via satellite is the easiest way to reach remote areas, but Facebook and Google are trying to keep costs down. Loon itself is essentially an effort to replicate a satellite network, although the polyethylene plastic balloons themselves stay afloat for only 100 days.

Many projects seen outlandish, but we're unlikely to get a solution right the first time
Liam Fisher, Builtvisible

However, those in the satellite business think otherwise. Google is keen on "moon-shot thinking", but it's Elon Musk - PayPal founder and owner of SpaceX - who has the best track record of getting into orbit. The SpaceX Dragon capsule has been back and forth to the International Space Station many times on the company's Falcon 9 rocket, which gives its global satellite internet network some credence.

Musk plans to launch (again using Falcon 9) a constellation of 4,000 satellites around the globe to beam a Wi-fi signal to the most remote regions, instantly turning his company from a space industry start-up into a global communications provider. But the cost of creating such a vast network makes is just as ambitious as Musk's stated aim of one day helping to populate Mars.

Outernet also has an out-of-this-world vision - free, anonymous, unrestricted and uncensored web access for every person on earth. The New York-based company plans to launch a fleet of small, low-cost satellites called cubesats, then distribute many more portable, solar-powered Wi-fi receivers. Although free internet from space is a laudable goal, it will be limited to 10 megabytes per person per day.

Concepts such as these might seem wildly ambitious and unlikely to come to fruition, but they underscore just how big the problem of internet equality is. "The diversity of the projects aimed at getting underserved areas online is telling," says Fisher, who advocates novel technology to bring data to remote corners of the globe. The biggest challenge is to remain cost-effective.

Serious innovation is required, with expensive failures and false starts inevitable. Few companies can soak up that challenge, which is why the involvement of SpaceX, Google and Facebook is so important.

"Many of those projects seem outlandish in nature, but we're unlikely to get a solution right the first time," says Fisher, who draws a parallel with the first submarine cable systems.

"The first functional cables lasted only long enough to transmit a couple of messages, but they demonstrated an important principle," he says.

It was only with functional innovations around cable insulation and signal repeating that the vast global network eventually became what is known as the internet, he adds.

"I think we'll see the same happen here: first attempts like Project Loon will probably find limited success, but they'll form an important knowledge base to build upon."

For now, a truly World Wide Web is still just a concept. For more than half of the world's population, regular internet access is a fantasy, with fast broadband restricted to a clique of rich countries in Asia, North America and Europe.

Has the internet reached its limit? No, but those out to create a truly global internet are hoping the sky will not be the limit.