The Race to Wrap the Earth in Internet Is Heating Up

How important is the internet to your day-to-day life?

For starters, you’re definitely reading this on a screen and using the internet to access it. That means you probably use the internet to access most of your news, as well as to check your email, check the weather, get directions, look up anything you might want to know over the course of an average day, and communicate with your friends and colleagues.

In the vast majority of the developed world, the internet has become a resource we rely on for pretty much everything; it makes multiple aspects of our lives easier, faster, and cheaper.

But in the developing world, it’s a different story. 4.3 billion people lack regular internet access; in the world’s 48 UN-designated least developed countries (PDF), 90% of the population lacks any kind of internet connectivity at all.

It’s taken for granted in developed countries, but internet infrastructure is hard to establish and requires resources many developing countries don’t have. Telecommunications companies haven’t found it worthwhile to build networks for internet in these regions.

That’s why it was big news when SpaceX requested permission from the FCC to launch 4,425 satellites—more than all the satellites already in orbit—to create a global internet hotspot 200 times faster than today’s average connection speed. SpaceX’s internet ambition has been public since last year, and an earlier FCC application requested permission to test starter technologies to move the plan ahead.

“The focus is going to be on creating a global communications system. This is quite an ambitious effort,” Musk said of the project last year. “We’re really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the Internet in space.”

Their FCC filing appears to be the next step, and the scheme outlined in the filing is suitably ambitious (more below). But SpaceX isn’t alone in its global internet aspirations.

Other big tech companies are racing to find the best way to provide internet access not only to developing nations, but to pretty much the whole planet. Here’s a look at projects by three of tech’s biggest names to make global connectivity a reality.

Google’s Project Loon

How it works: Polyethylene balloons 15 meters wide are launched into the stratosphere 20 kilometers above Earth, where they hold solar-powered electronics that receive signals from a telecommunications network on the ground and transmit connectivity back down to smartphones and other devices. Google X partners with local wireless carriers and leases the balloons rather than operating them independently.

Google Loon 2013 launch event

Advantages: At present, each balloon has a coverage area of 5,000 square kilometers. The stratosphere contains layers of opposing winds with speeds up to 300 kilometers per hour, and for reliable service there needs to be a balloon within 40 kilometers of a user at all times. Google developed software that uses predictive models of stratospheric winds and decision-making algorithms to move balloons to where they need to be to increase the connection’s reliability.

Challenges: The balloons need to be as durable as possible—more time up in the stratosphere means greater scale and lower replacement costs—but also as lightweight as possible. More than three years into the project, the longest one balloon has stayed afloat is 187 days. How long might it take for the balloons to reach capability to stay up for a year or multiple years, rather than having to be recycled, rebuilt, and re-deployed so frequently?

Snapshot: Testing started in 2013 in New Zealand and expanded to Australia and Brazil in 2014. 2016 saw the company begin providing internet service in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, as well as begin talks with operators in India. The company plans to establish a ring of 300 balloons around the entire southern hemisphere.

Facebook’s Aquila

How it works: Solar-powered drones made of lightweight carbon fiber and with a wingspan wider than that of a Boeing 737 circle a region at an altitude of 60,000-90,000 feet, using laser-based technology to transmit a signal that’s received by antennas on the ground. The antennas convert the signal into WiFi or 4G networks. Like Google, Facebook won’t provide access directly, but will partner with local carriers to offer service.

Advantages: The company lab-tested a laser that can deliver data at tens of gigabits per second, which is ten times faster than current speeds. Also, the planes fly at a slow speed of 80mph to conserve energy, using only 5,000 watts of power, about the same as three hair dryers.

Challenges: To reach its goal of having planes deliver consistent connectivity in remote regions for up to three months, Facebook will need to break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight, which currently stands at two weeks. This means developing high-energy, dense batteries that can collect and store enough energy during daylight hours to operate around the clock—and the batteries still have to be ultra-lightweight.

Snapshot: After two years of research and development, Aquila’s inaugural flight took place in Yuma, Arizona on June 28 of this year. The plan was for the plane to stay in the air for 30 minutes, but it ended up flying for 96 minutes. Facebook’s goal is to have a fleet of planes flying simultaneously, linked by laser communication, each staying up for months at a time. The company hasn’t yet released a timeline for this project.

SpaceX’s Satellites

How it works: Reusable rockets will launch a network of 4,425 satellites into space to orbit 715 to 790 miles above Earth’s surface. Each satellite will weigh about as much as a small car and would provide internet service to an area with a diameter of 1,300 miles on the ground, at a speed of one gigabit per second. The company would initially send up 1,600 satellites at one orbital altitude, then follow with another 2,825 satellites at four different altitudes.

Advantages: Once all 4,425 satellites have been launched, they’d essentially cover the entire planet in an internet bubble, providing global coverage far beyond the scale of what competitors Loon or Aquila can achieve. Each satellite would have a comparatively long life span of 5-7 years, after which they’d begin to decay.

Challenges: The greater connectivity range and longer lifespan of the satellites as compared to Loon’s balloons or Facebook’s planes comes with a significantly higher up-front price tag.

Snapshot: The project is in its nascent stage, with SpaceX just recently filing an application with the Federal Communications Commission.

Will a few tech companies rule the global internet?

So what will it mean for a handful of tech companies to gain a major advantage in providing global internet coverage? Will they have an undue amount of control over the newly-online millions?

While their projects have philanthropic aspects, Facebook and Google also have their own incentive to spread the internet as widely as they can. There are only so many people in the US, Europe, and other wealthy countries who can open Facebook accounts or do Google searches, and those markets will eventually be tapped out. The companies’ business models depend on overseas growth; getting billions more people online means a fresh supply of users.

Entry of large internet providers into emerging markets in the past has seen issues such as the provider making their own website easy and free to access while keeping competitor’s sites at bay. Facebook took fire for the way it rolled out an experiment in free internet in India not long ago.

The fact that the global connectivity projects are partnering with local providers should help stem these dangers, but local providers may then face similar issues. Facebook, Google, and SpaceX may also encounter red tape and censorship from local governments. In Cuba, for exampleaccess to the global internet is highly restricted, with many users limited to a government-filtered intranet and related email service.

Internet = Information, Information = Power

Of the 4.3 billion people who don’t have internet access, many also lack basic resources like healthcare or clean water. So what’s the big deal about getting internet access to developing nations? Wouldn’t all that money be better invested by trying to end world hunger, or by building water systems or schools?

Maybe. But internet is an empowering force too: giving people access to online information and tools will give them the power to pursue these goals with innovations of their own, like never before. Millions of entrepreneurs will be born, from small family businesses to larger companies tackling their nations’ biggest challenges.

According to the UNESCO/ITU September 2016 State of Broadband report, mobile internet alone contributed US$3.1 trillion to global GDP in 2015, helping to lift millions out of poverty. The report says:

“A farmer in a rural community can make payments to suppliers without having to travel miles. An urban entrepreneur can better achieve scale in his or her business through quick and secure mobile payments. A mother can conveniently pay her children’s school fees. At the end of 2015, there were 271 mobile money services available across 93 countries, and 411 million registered mobile money accounts. By disrupting the “bricks and mortar” financial services previously inaccessible to so many, millions of people now have a pathway to financial inclusion.”

And that’s just mobile.

For better or worse, the race to make our planet one giant internet-infused bubble will continue. Whoever the winner may be (if there is a winner—no one’s said there can’t be multiple global providers) signs point to the results bringing more good than harm.

Image Credit: NASA

Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa is senior editor of Singularity Hub. She's interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering, the nitty-gritty of the renewable energy transition, the roles technology and science play in geopolitics and international development, and countless other topics.
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