While many Americans complain about the exorbitant monthly cost of internet access, there are billions of people around the world with no internet access. No hard-wired access, no wireless access, no internet access at all.
But now three iconic high-tech companies are rapidly developing competing plans to solve both problems.
Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors (famous as the manufacturers of the world’s sexiest electric cars), and SpaceX, has a plan to deliver worldwide cheap internet access with a network of 700 low-orbit satellites.
Google is teaming up with Telstra, Australia’s dominant phone company, to launch 20 internet-delivering helium-filled balloons over western Queensland in a test designed to connect remote regions of the world.
And, finally, Facebook, Nokia and Qualcomm want to bring cheap internet access to the third-world via drones, satellites, and lasers.
Let’s take a closer look at all three efforts.
Elon Musk’s plan to launch 700 low-orbit, internet-delivering satellites
Beating the odds is Elon Musk’s specialty.
The high-tech billionaire is widely recognized as one of Silicon Valley’s true visionaries. After making billions of dollars when he launched the ubiquitous PayPal, he went on to show American and Japanese auto manufacturers how to build a profitable electric car company. As if that weren’t enough success for one lifetime, he also founded SpaceX, a company that’s made a name for itself by figuring out what NASA has never been able to figure out — how to launch low-cost payloads into orbit.
ExtremeTech.com said, “Elon Musk, capitalizing on SpaceX’s unique ability to cheaply launch stuff into space, has announced that he’s working on deploying a constellation of some 700 satellites, for the purpose of bringing ‘very low cost’ internet access to everyone on Earth. Satellite internet access could be very useful in rural parts of North America and Europe, but it’s the under-connected parts of the world (Asia, Africa, South America) that will be of more interest to Musk, both financially and ideologically.”
Musk hasn’t revealed many details of his plan, but has tweeted that the SpaceX plan involves a “large formation” of satellites and hinted that he’d be back with an official announcement in “2 to 3 months”.
Experts believe — perhaps “guess” would be a better word — that the SpaceX plan will require about 700 small satellites (approximately half the weight of today’s smallest communications satellites) into a low-altitude orbit. Seven hundred satellites would create a “constellation” around 10 times larger than any other communications network.
“… we know that the satellites will be placed in 20 different orbits to provide consistent coverage all over the world — but there’s no word on how fast the access will be, or how much it might cost. Musk tweeted that it would be ‘very low cost,’ but might just be relative to existing satellite internet access (which tends to be very expensive),” according to ExtremeTech.
This concept has some obstacles to overcome in the first world. As anyone who has ever had satellite internet access will loudly attest, it is expensive, slow, and unreliable. There’s a reason that Dish and DirecTV are two of America’s most reviled companies.
Musk thinks he can solve all three problems with his plans for 700 low-altitude satellites. In the past, it cost approximately $50 million to put a single satellite in orbit with NASA, the European Space Agency, or the Russians.
“Now, however, with SpaceX slashing the cost of getting into space, combined with smaller, cheaper satellites (reportedly just $1 million each),” ExtremeTech says, “a massive constellation of low-altitude satellites doesn’t sound quite so silly.”
According to the latest statistics, approximately 3 billion people around the world currently have access to the internet via computers, smartphones, and tablets. That leaves four billion others — mostly in rural areas of China, India, and Africa — with no internet access.
Add in the hundreds of billions of first world customers who desperately need lower cost, more reliable internet access and you can see why Musk sees this as an incredible opportunity.
Google floats plans to bring you cheap internet via balloons
Balloons? Really? Could this be the craziest, wackiest cheap internet plan of the three?
Google prides itself on hiring the smartest people in the world, but we’ll just have to wait and see if the search engine giant can pull off this audacious plan. And maybe, just maybe, the name of the project — Project Loon — gives us an idea of what Google thinks its odds of success may be.
The test in Western Queensland, one of the most remote, inaccessible areas on the face of the earth, is actually Phase II of the project. In Phase I in June, 2013, the company did a trial run in the skies above Christchurch, New Zealand. They’ve also conducted tests in California’s Central Valley and northeastern Brazil.
If all goes according to plan, Google will eventually “beam internet to remote parts of the world via helium balloons that circle the globe on stratospheric winds,” according to theguardian.com.
The high-tech balloons are designed to carry antennas that can broadcast signals to homes and phones from 12 miles up in the stratosphere. The audacious plan calls for a ring of balloons that circle the earth and deliver internet to billions of people who currently live without the internet.
Here’s how Google describes Project Loon:
“Project Loon balloons float in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and the weather. In the stratosphere, there are many layers of wind, and each layer of wind varies in direction and speed. Loon balloons go where they’re needed by rising or descending into a layer of wind blowing in the desired direction of travel. People can connect to the balloon network using a special Internet antenna attached to their building. The signal bounces from this antenna up to the balloon network, and then down to the global Internet on Earth.”
Googlephiles think the company is infallible, but some of the company’s recent efforts prove the fallacy of that belief. Its much-touted Google Glass concept has run into some major roadblocks, and its massive Tonopah Solar facility recently came under fire when, as the Associated Press reported, the company announced that it is producing less energy than anticipated because “the sun isn’t shining as much as expected”.
Nevertheless, Google’s track record is remarkable and we hope its balloon-delivered internet concept isn’t just a lot of hot air. And we’re not alone, because billions of other people around the world have the same hope.
Drones, satellites and lasers: Facebook’s cheap internet concept looks like Star Wars
The company, in partnership with Finnish phone giant Nokia and San Diego’s Qualcomm, has put together a worldwide cheap internet program that’s built around solar-powered drones, satellites, and lasers. It has everything except Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and we assume he’d like it to function like Vader’s Death Star against competitive systems from Google and Elon Musk.
We assume that Zuckerberg is dangling the lure of lucrative stock options in front of the underpaid uber brains at NASA in order to bring them to Facebook’s Connectivity Lab and the internet.org project.
According to TechCrunch.com, they intend “to use these air- and space-born methods to bring Internet to the 5 billion people who currently lack it. Zuckerberg says that Internet.org and Facebook will work on inventing new technologies to complete the mission.”
This, of course, sets up a new three-way space race between Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, Google’s Project Loon, which employes a series of stratosphere-riding helium balloons, and Elon Musk’s 700 small, orbiting satellite-based system. All three have the same goal: To deliver cheap internet to everyone in the underserved Third World and to lower prices in more developed nations.
Another quote from TechCrunch: “To bolster its talent in aerospace engineering, Facebook has acqhired the five-member team of UK-based startup Ascenta, whose members previously worked at QinetiQ, Boeing, Honeywell and the Harris Corporation. There they tackled on projects including the Breitling Orbiter and prototypes of the Zephyr, the longest-flying solar powered drone. Members of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s Ames Research Center, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory have also come aboard the Facebook project.”
The Facebook/Internet.org system expects to use different technologies to deliver Internet to different areas. Developed urban areas it will be served by “solar-powered high altitude, long endurance aircraft” that can stay aloft for weeks without landing or refueling. According to plan, they’re easy to deploy and will deliver reliable internet access. Internet service in less densely populated regions will be provided by a combination of low-orbit and geosynchronous satellites.
TechCrunch reports that “Both will employ “Free-space optical communication”, or FSO, which uses invisible, infrared laser beams to transmit data using light.” We honestly have no idea what that means, but it sounds like something straight out of Star Wars, doesn’t it?
“Our goal with internet.org,” Zuckerberg said, “is to make affordable access to basic internet services available to every person in the world.”
What does the future hold?
Wikipedia observes that “The GPS project was developed in 1973 to overcome the limitations of previous navigation systems, integrating ideas from several predecessors, including a number of classified engineering design studies from the 1960s. GPS was created and realized by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and was originally run with 24 satellites. It became fully operational in 1995. Bradford Parkinson, Roger L. Easton, and Ivan A. Getting are credited with inventing it.”
In fact, none of the three previous systems work as designed and Parkinson’s team was instructed to use them as a starting point to create one functional GPS system.
We would not be surprised to see a similar solution emerge in this situation — if, that is, the personal and corporate egos resident at SpaceX, Google and Facebook can be kept in check long enough to allow them to acknowledge the “right” solution.
No matter which technology or combination of technologies finally “wins”, the three efforts are a huge step forward in solving the internet problems that plague billions of people around the world.
The bottom line: We know cheap internet for everyone is coming. We just don’t quite know when.