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Why Google and Facebook need balloons, drones and rockets

Mike Elgan | Dec. 8, 2014
Google and Facebook are hatching schemes (that some people call crazy) to bring to the majority of people what we in the privileged minority enjoy every day — the ability to get online.

Facebook partnered with Ericsson, Qualcomm, Samsung and other companies to bring the Internet "to the two-thirds of the world's population that doesn't have it."

To reach that goal, it's taking a broad, multifaceted approach that includes everything from helping global carriers analyze and improve the functionality of their networks (Facebook recently improved performance in Indonesia by 70%) to hackathons that tap local talent to create data-efficient apps. Internet.org has also created a free app that brings content from AccuWeather, Google search, Wikipedia and (naturally) Facebook.

While those sensible initiatives are worthy, Facebook's most interesting and surprising approaches include drones, satellites and lasers. The company is working with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and the Ames Research Center on those undertakings.

Earlier this year, Facebook acquired a consultancy called Ascenta. It was mainly an "aquihire" to get the founders, who developed Zephyr, which is the record holder for solar-powered drone flight, having put a solar drone in the sky for two weeks back in 2010.

These initiatives are a core part of Internet.org's plans, but they're being developed by Facebook itself. Facebook's Silicon Valley-based Connectivity Lab (which has some employees in London) is aggressively hiring scientists and engineers to use drones, lasers and satellites to connect people who are currently beyond the reach of Internet access.

While Google is breaking records with balloon longevity of more than 100 days, Facebook is looking to solar-powered drones that can stay aloft for years. These remotely piloted aircraft may have wingspans as wide as a 747 (although their fuselages will be much skinnier), with the entire surface of the wings covered in solar panels.

Facebook drones would fly at around 65,000 feet, which is far above the altitude of commercial aircraft but the lowest altitude for unregulated airspace.

Like Project Loon balloons, the drones would use mesh networking and Wi-Fi to shuttle bits across the sky and back and forth between drones and antennas below.

The reach of the drones would be enhanced by low-orbit satellites, which will transmit data back and forth using infrared laser beams.

What everyone needs to know about these seemingly crazy projects is that they're really happening. They're not the wishful thinking pet projects of founders with too much money on their hands. Both Google and Facebook are aggressive and serious about using drones, satellites and balloons to bring Internet access to billions who currently don't have it.

Cynics can scoff and say that these ideas are impractical and self-serving. But I think that not only are they some of the most interesting and worthy projects currently being attempted, but also that they represent sensible thinking about connecting people at the lowest possible cost. And low cost is the most important aspect of these programs. Unless they're doable and sustainable, it's never going to happen.

Connecting the two-thirds majority who are without any Internet access is a worthy goal. Who else besides Google and Facebook is going to do it?

 

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