Global Internet to Keep Us Connected Everywhere
All due respect to NASCAR fans, but this is the sort of race we’d rather watch: Companies competing to be the first to unleash the world’s first global internet. Because, hey, we need to be able to surf porn check our fantasy baseball team from anywhere on the planet. It would also be useful to work from any place on Earth, whether zipping across the steppes of Mongolia on a motor bike or posting content from a flop house in the Philippines or snowshoeing across the Rocky Mountains.
We’re talking the ultimate life-work balance.
You’ve probably heard something about using drones, balloons, satellites, even homing pigeons (well, not yet) to make the worldwide web truly worldly. Somewhere around four billion people on the planet are missing out on cute cat videos, not to mention the economic benefits that come with an internet connection. The company that can first plug those billions into a global internet system would not only be a humanitarian hero but make a more-than-modest profit along the way.
To paraphrase an interview on The Verge with Mike Cassidy, lead on Google’s Project Loon, which is launching high-altitude balloons into the stratosphere as one technological riff on global internet:
Think about it: 4.5 billion people without internet access. Take five percent and you’re talking 250 million people. If those people pay just a small portion of their monthly income, say $5 a piece, you’re going to be in a billion dollars a month in revenue, tens of billions a year in revenue. So it’s good business, too.
Cassidy should know a good deal when he sees it: He ended up at Google after starting and selling four startups, including the search engine DirectHit to AskJeeves for $532 million in 2000—less than two years after he founded it. And Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize and co-founder of Singularity University, recently listed what he called hyper-connecting the world as the No. 1 trend that made the world better in 2016. Let’s take a closer look at the global internet race.
The craziest-sounding effort to bring global internet to billions of people around the world may actually be the one closest to reality. Project Loon is backed by Google. To be more precise, it’s funded by Google’s newly created parent company Alphabet Inc. in the conglomerate’s Bond-esque, semi-secret R&D lab called X.
The idea behind Project Loon sounds, well, a little loony. It would create a floating global internet by launching balloons with solar-powered electronics that connect a ground-based telecommunications network on the ground with mobile devices through local wireless providers. The concept has already been tested with partners in places like New Zealand and Brazil. A network of 300 balloons is planned around the Southern Hemisphere, according to a story in Singularity Hub.
Sound complex? It is. Sound impossible? Definitely not. Launching balloons into the stratosphere, the layer of atmosphere that starts about 20 kilometers (12 miles, for those of you still on ye olde imperial system) above the Earth, is a well-practiced trick. Scientists do it with much larger balloons, expanding to the size of a football field, above Antarctica to launch telescopes. They’re sort of the poor man’s version of satellites.
Project Loon has the logistics down to a precise science. Custom-built “autolaunchers” are capable of sending balloons into near-space every 30 minutes. They’re basically specialized cranes that work like slow-motion catapults. Operators choreograph the airborne balloons, which can stay aloft for several months at a time, using wind models of the stratosphere and algorithms to provide maximum coverage. Project Loon claims it has demonstrated “transmission between balloons over 100 kilometers apart in the stratosphere and back down to people on the ground with connection speeds of up to 10 Mbps, directly to their LTE phones.”
Droning Out the Competition
Google doubled-down on global internet in 2014 when it bought Titan Aerospace, a company that developed low-cost, low-flying satellites. The tech giant had wrested the startup away from Facebook. Google had planned to launch a swarm of Titan’s solar-powered drones to beam the internet far and wide.
It appears that plan crashed sometime last year, though the news only came out this past January. Alphabet decided to end its bid to provide global internet via unmanned aerial vehicles, aka UAVs or drones. In a widely circulated statement, X lab said, “By comparison, at this stage the economics and technical feasibility of Project Loon present a much more promising way to connect rural and remote parts of the world.” (On a somewhat related note, Alphabet just announced this week that it’s further pulling out of the space biz with the sale of its satellite-imaging business, Terra Bella, to Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based private satellite company. Google had acquired the company, formerly known as Skybox Imaging, for $500 million the same year it bought Titan Aerospace.)
Facebook is still betting UAVs are a feasible way to provide global internet to the world’s unconnected (and unfriended) billions. The effort is led by the company’s Connectivity Lab as part of its Internet.org initiative. Facebook’s futuristic vision is a fleet of solar-powered aircraft with a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737. The drones will beam the internet and Facebook posts via lasers. According to Facebook, the technology is so good that it can send data at fiber-optic speeds using very little power.
The Aquila prototype took flight and stayed aloft for more than 90 minutes but was apparently damaged during its first test flight. Internet.org suffered an even bigger setback in September when another global internet initiative went up in flames after a SpaceX rocket exploded on the launch pad. The Falcon 9 rocket was to carry a $200 million internet satellite into space. Facebook had bought bandwidth to provide internet to sub-Saharan Africa in partnership with French satellite company Eutelsat.
Global Internet from Space
Of course, SpaceX has its own plans for global domination, er, global internet, which apparently has nothing to do with drilling a giant tunnel under Los Angeles. Company CEO Elon Musk just needs about 4,425 satellites in low-Earth orbit to bathe the world with broadband internet. That’s about equal to all the satellites currently in orbit around Mother Earth. Admittedly, both plans do sound a bit Bond villain in concept.
Singularity Hub’s Vanessa Bates Ramirez wrote that the satellite constellation would orbit between 715 and 790 miles above the Earth, providing speeds of one gigabit per second. SpaceX filed documents with the Federal Communications Commission, so at least the paperwork is out of the way. There’s no timeline on deployment, though TechCrunch reported late last year that Musk estimated the project would take at least five years and cost around $10 billion. We have to ask where even someone like Musk is going to find that sort of cash. SpaceX is backlogged and losing money, while Tesla is feeling (at least temporarily) some consumer backlash from Musk’s seeming coziness with the president of the United States.
Another ambitious satellite system, OneWeb, appears to be on firmer financial ground after raising $1.7 billion since 2015, including $1.2 billion in December 2016 from the telecommunications and internet giant SoftBank. OneWeb’s 900-satellite system would offer global internet as soon as 2019, according to Diamandis. Among the leaders of that venture is Richard Branson, a sort of Elon Musk, but with a cooler accent and better hair.
Yet another player is U.S.-based ViaSat (NASDAQ: VSAT), which is working with Boeing to launch three satellites that will provide 1 terabit per second internet connections to remote corners of the world, according to Futurism.com. ViaSat claimed on its website that the first two of three new satellites could offer more than twice the total network capacity of the 400 or so commercial communications satellites currently orbiting the Earth combined.
And if all that—balloons, drones and satellites—fails, there’s still hope for global internet. Several companies, including Facebook and $63 million startup Starry (founded in 2014 by founder of defunct startup Aereo, Chaitanya “Chet” Kanojia) are working on a whole different solution. They propose delivering wicked fast internet anywhere literally out of thin air by using millimeter waves. Check out the specs of this project on The Verge. We’ve got sunset over the Mekong River to catch. We’ll post some pictures as soon as we’re back in Wi-Fi range.