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The commercial Internet came into existence around 20 years ago, and we all wanted to get online and talk to everyone at the push of a button on our desktop PCs. Now, we’re able to access the Internet in the palm of our hands through smartphones. However, the growth has seen some challenges, particularly with granting Internet access to impoverished and disconnected corners of the globe.

57 percent of the world is offline, with the majority of offline individuals in what the United Nations calls Least Developed Countries. Developing countries have seen an explosion of growth, while the developed world (mostly Europe, North America and several Asian countries) have Internet penetration rates of over 80 percent. The good news is that broadband Internet is becoming more affordable, but prices still remain high in least developed and developing countries, where reasonable broadband prices could close the development gap.

Four different companies are proposing solutions to get everyone online, each with different strategies and backers. Their primary method? Satellites, which can reach those living in remote or inaccessible areas where it is extremely difficult to build landlines or cell phone towers.

oneweb

OneWeb seeks to launch 600 satellites to beam high-speed Internet down to Earth at a height of about 750 miles above the surface of Earth, closer than current satellites which orbit at about 22,000 miles above Earth. The shorter distance to the ground means a faster Internet connection. The company is headed by Greg Wyler and has the backing of powerful Virgin Galactic businessman Richard Branson. “It could dramatically help close the wealth gap,” Branson said, alluding to the vast economic benefits that people in remote areas or with poor infrastructure could gain as a result of reliable Internet. The service is estimated to initially cost up to $2 billion and could be up and running by 2019.

spacexsatellites

SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, has a head-start on its competition—it already serves the International Space Station. However, it plans to go even further and put 4,000 disposable satellites circling at a similar height to the OneWeb project. “The long term potential of it is pretty great,” said Musk. “The communications technology will be substantially more advanced than existing satellite Internet projects.” Testing is scheduled to begin in 2016 with Google and Fidelity having already provided $1 billion for the project.

googleprojectloon

It should be no surprise that Google is also in on the project. Project Loon is going to deploy solar-powered balloons at a height of 60,000 to 90,000 feet above the ground (higher than commercial airplanes), with each balloon lasting about 100 days. This could be beneficial, especially to remote Pacific islands, where Internet access is spotty or even non-existent. “Communication satellites are typically pretty expensive, hundreds of millions to build and a hundred million plus to launch,” said Mike Cassidy, director of product management at Google and project leader at Project Loon.

Having Cassidy on their side is a huge advantage for Google on the business side—Cassidy is also an entrepreneur who has been dubbed as “the startup king of Silicon Valley” and has gained praise for the speed at which he creates companies and sells them for a profit. Cassidy mentioned that each balloon would only cost tens of thousands of dollars. “The balloons are an order of magnitude or two cheaper to operate on a daily basis, even for a global network,” he added. Testing for Project Loon has been ongoing since 2013, but there is no clear release date as of yet.

facebookaquila

Facebook has also decided to take to the skies with an airplane nicknamed Aquila (Latin for eagle). Like Google’s Project Loon, it is also solar-powered and has the wingspan of a Boeing 737. It will also fly at around 60,000 feet for three months at a time and cover a radius of 50 miles on the ground below. “Over the coming months, we will test these systems in the real world and continue refining them so we can turn their promise into reality,” said Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The cost, however, is still unknown.

A big hurdle to overcome, other than the crowded airspace (which includes space junk), is the competing satellites from these different companies interfering with their own signals. Another question that comes to mind is how quickly they can get to market. OneWeb in particular hired airplane manufacturer Airbus to manufacture 900 of these satellites at a rate of four a day, and the majority will be built in the United States.

“They need to bring the sort of large-scale assembly line processes and efficiency found in the automotive world to space, and that’s a really new thing for us,” said satellite industry expert Brian Weeden, technical adviser for Secure World Foundation. Once these companies get their solutions in the air, we could be seeing 100 percent Internet connectivity by the beginning of the next decade.

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