Internet is becoming more and more important to us with each passing day- there are no two ways about it. After all, it allows us to get the latest news, do shopping, send and receive payments, and a lot more. Unfortunately, only the developed countries are able to enjoy an access to the same. In the developing nations a whopping 4.3 billion people lack quality Internet access. What’s more, about 90% of the least-developing countries (as categorized by the UN) don’t have internet connectivity at all.
Most telecom companies in the developing nations are unwilling to spend capital on developing a network for Internet connectivity. The lack of resources and talent in these nations doesn’t help the issue either.
When SpaceX approached FCC with a request for launching 4,425 satellites in the orbit to create a global Internet hotspot that is 200 times faster than today’s average network last year, it led to a worldwide coverage.
“We’re really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the Internet in space.” Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, commented on the subject.
While Musk’s efforts are really noble and courageous, it is worthwhile to know that he is not the only person working towards making global internet connectivity a reality. Other tech giants are also working on their own individual projects in the same endeavour.
Facebook’s vision for global internet connectivity is through a fleet of solar-powered drones called Aquilas, that will use laser technology for transmitting signals which are received by antennas located on the ground. These antennas will convert the signals into 4G or internet networks for the people to access.
Facebook’s Aquilas will be made lightweight carbon fibre and will fly together at an altitude of 60,000 feet. As for the internet service, it will be provided to the people directly, but the company plans to partner with local providers to offer the service.
While Facebook’s Aquila project is quite ambitious and revolutionary, it has to overcome a few challenges before it can be launched successfully on a large scale. For starters, Aquilas must be able to harness enough energy from the sun to keep its propellers, light systems, communications payload, etc. running. Their current setup uses about 5kW of power, which is a lot. Thus, efforts are being made to bring it down.
In order for an Aquila to work it must transfer data using laser beams with high precision. Its aim must be accurate enough to hit a dime that is more than 11 miles away, while the drone stays in motion.
Work in Progress
The first successful flight of Aquila took place on 28th June, 2016, about 2 years post the inception. The drone was airborne for about 96 minutes, although the initial plan was set for 30 minutes. The social media giant plans to improve Aquila so much that it is able to stay up for at least a month.
Project Loon (former Google X)- Google
Google describes its project loon as a “network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters”.
The project uses large 15m wide polyethylene balloons that are launched into the stratosphere 20 km above Earth. Using software algorithms these balloons find suitable spots between the layers of winds that allow them to stay still. The electronic devices they use are solar-powered, and used for transmitting and receiving data from smartphones and other related devices. A single balloon can provide Internet connectivity to a ground area about 40 km in diameter using Long-Term Evolution(LTE).
Google’s project loon seems more promising than Facebook’s Aquila, but even it has its fair share of challenges ahead.
The balloons have to be lightweight but durable nonetheless. The longest a balloon has stayed up in the stratosphere since three years (roughly the period since the project started) is 187 days. This is not a satisfactory number. The balloons have to stay at least a year or more, so that there is minimum recycling and rebuilding involved.
Work in Progress
The testing for Project Loom started in 2013 in New Zealand. It was expanded to Brazil and Australia in 2014, and today they are providing service in other countries as well that include Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Will Global Internet Bring Global Dominance?
While the efforts made by the big tech corporations are certainly commendable, the same also raise a valid question- will these tech companies gain a major advantage from global Internet through incredible control over Internet usage?
We have already seen a glimpse of what Internet dominance could be like, when the concept of “Internet neutrality” was raised a few months ago in India. Facebook lost the right to offer its free mobile internet service in the country after the TRAI ruled in favour of net neutrality. The social media giant had tried to push free access to a limited number of web services through its “Free Basics” service, but the effort fell flat.
So, it is safe to say that while Google and Facebook’s intentions may appear philanthropic on the surface, they are bound to have their personal incentives too. By controlling Internet access on a large scale these companies can develop a monopoly on digital marketing and advertising, and much more.
Whether for better or worse, the efforts towards global Internet are not likely to stop. All major tech corporations are racing against each other to get at the helm of monopoly. However, while there might be some disadvantages to it, millions of people from the developing countries are certain to be benefitted as well. Thus, overall it has to be better for the society.