The New York Times has posted an informative and poignant article on the spread of the Internet in rural India. Most people don’t trust it (especially anyone over age 40). Essentially only men use it. Many feel it is a waste of time leading to immoral behavior.
But the evangelists see it differently, recognizing the efficiency and joy of easy communications, accessible information, and better business opportunities.
“Even Mr. Neti’s uncle, Siya Ram Singh Gond, shook his head gravely at the thought of how long they had lived without these tools. ‘So much time was wasted,’ he said”.
SpaceX has satellites. Google has balloons. Facebook has drones.
Facebook’s Project Aquila seeks to use giant solar-powered drones to provide bandwidth to rural and remote regions around the world. The drones, flying at 60,000 feet and aloft for months at a time, would communicate across the fleet of drones and with ground stations.
The Aquila drone was tested for the first time in June 2016. It flew wonderfully — before crashing. Mark Zuckerberg detailed the successes of the first flight in a blog post.
Facebook has also been researching more efficient radio technologies to increase the bandwidth capabilities of Aquila.
Aquila is a major component of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, and effort to bring over 4 billion people online for the first time.
Project Loon, an initiative of X (formerly Google X), seeks to provide internet access to rural and remote areas by using high-altitude balloons. The balloons, residing in the stratosphere (~18 km), would form an aerial wireless network providing LTE-like coverage. Balloons navigate by changing their altitudes to find winds of appropriate direction.
The initiative, active since 2008, has tested balloons in six continents, most recently providing bandwidth to flooded areas in Peru. Project Loon also claims that through artificial intelligence technology from Alphabet, the balloons have become much more efficient, requiring far fewer for coverage.
SpaceX has ambitions to launch thousands of communications satellites into low earth orbit (LOE). Other competitors, such as OneWeb and LeoSat, do as well. The lowering cost of launch technologies, combined with the shrinking size and increasing sophistication of satellites, allows for new approaches.
Launch costs are likely to continue to drop as new players enter the sector.
The recent entrant is Stratolaunch, a startup aerospace firm backed by Paul Allen, who is now testing a new launch vehicle. Stratolaunch has introduced an enormous, twin fuselage aircraft designed to carry up to three rockets that can lift satellites into LOE. It would return to its staging area, refuel, reload, and be ready for three more rockets. Stratolaunch anticipates its first rocket tests in 2019.
Also quietly testing a range of new launch technologies is Blue Origin, the Jeff Bezos-backed rocket startup. While it gets only a fraction of the press of SpaceX, the firm reportedly is making steady progress towards reusable vehicles, has plenty of funding, and planning, among other things, for sub-orbital space tourism flights beginning in 2018.
Broadband expansion to this point has mostly been driven by consumers: user fees for telephony and internet access underpins the business models of the firms providing access.
That will continue to be true — but augmented by two important new trends.
First, the Internet of Things (IoT) will be a voracious consumer of bandwidth. Gartner estimates that 20 million items will be connected by 2020 (and growing quickly). Just the bandwidth needs for self-driving cars alone will be enormous. So no longer will just consumers be paying for access: 20 million items will as well.
Secondly, artificial intelligence (AI) derives its value from collecting and analyzing vast quantities of data. This value will depend on a broadband infrastructure as a key component.
So the “global nervous system” is going to expand massively in coming years in order to allow our HomePods to speak to our Teslas. And as a convenient side effect of this connectivity, the whole planet will be gaining access as well, much of it for the first time.