You are in the minority of world citizens who can access this online article. Out of the over 7 billion people inhabiting planet Earth, only 3 billion have Internet service. Cost is a significant barrier in many countries, but the logistics of Internet delivery is often the biggest hurdle, especially in remote areas.
Furthermore, even as the majority of the world seeks access, the current data-delivery infrastructure is bogging down under increased data demands, such as the ever popular video streaming services like Netflix (which accounts for a whopping 35% of internet usage in the US). While technical advances are being made in fiber optic internet promise ever-faster speeds here, some countries are lucky if they can get a dial up signal.
Three companies, Google, Facebook and SpaceX are, each in their own way, are putting forth initiatives to increase global capacity while bringing online more users in under-served regions.
Google Internet Drones
Google hopes to improve Internet access to remote areas via recently acquired Titan Aerospace’s high-altitude drone technology. These solar-powered drones are optimized to fly at 65,000 feet, which is well above commercial aircraft traffic lanes. They can stay aloft for up to 3 years. From these, Google will beam Internet signals to large areas within the drones’ line-of-sight. The drone project is already under testing in the New Mexico desert. The largest obstacle has been getting the drones to full altitude, which recently caused one to crash before full deployment.
Facebook’s Internet.org initiative attempts to increase the number of new Internet users in less developed countries via existing cellular phone infrastructure. It does so by subsidizing free access to a walled garden of around 30 apps such as Facebook, Bing, WhatsApp, weather, news and messaging services. So far, the initiative is embedded in 12 different countries including South Africa, Pakistan and India where Internet access is only enjoyed by about 50 percent of the population.
Users are able to access these services free of charge for a set period after which they are encouraged to move to more capable paid services. The program has come under fire, however, from competing cellular companies and regulators who say it is violating basic net neutrality principles as it garners higher bandwidth to the exclusion of other services. Some Indian companies even severed ties with the initiative over accusations it violates net neutrality.
SpaceX Internet Satellites
As one might expect from billionaire Elon Musk, his plans for expanding Internet coverage are far-reaching in both space and time. His company SpaceX is proposing to build an array of Low-Earth-Orbit, or LEO, satellites to beam Internet access to all corners of the globe from space. Although SpaceX would not be the first company to attempt this, it’s taking a unique approach to how they do it.
In SpaceX’s LEO, the satellites are at 750 miles altitude, which significantly reduces connection latency compared to current geo-stationary Internet satellites at over 26,000 miles altitude. The satellites in question will be “micro-satellites” about the size of a kitchen blender that are less expensive and far easier to deploy than current communication satellites. Due to the deployment advantages, SpaceX plans to put in orbit 4,000 of these satellites, clustered in large formations, for full global coverage.
Mr. Musk hopes to see the first satellite launches within five years and full deployment within 10 years after that.
In each of these companies’ efforts, there is hope that the majority of Earth’s population will soon have inexpensive, high-bandwidth Internet access. Facebook takes the approach of reducing cost and “fear-of-use” barriers using existing infrastructure, whereas Google’s Internet drones are an attempt at building local, wide-area access via relatively inexpensive, easily deployed radio infrastructure. Finally, Elon Musk and a few competitors envisage a global solution that covers the entire planet.
Even should none of these plans fully succeed, they demonstrate how the huge demand by the world’s population to become connected will continue to spawn fascinating, innovative ideas to provide what so many others take for granted. As each approach matures and new ones pop up, every under-served area will be anxious to see the results so they can apply their own solutions.