A year ago we ran an article headlined “Three high-tech giants developing different plans to bring cheap internet to everyone in the world. Including you”. So it seems like a good time to circle back and see what kind of progress Google, Facebook, and Space-X are making.
As we said in that article:
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.
Think back to the days when you were sitting in class, watching the clock and thinking the final twelve minutes of English lit would never end. Well, it’s been twelve months since we reported on the efforts of these three high tech titans, and twelve months is an eternity in the world of Silicon Valley. It’s a place where mind boggling progress can be made overnight.
So let’s take another look at what we reported a year ago and what kind of progress (if any) has been made.
Google Loon: Then
Last year we reported that Google had teamed up with Telstra, Australia’s dominant phone company, to test the concept by launching 20 internet-delivering helium-filled balloons over a remote section of western Queensland. This followed other tests in New Zealand, Central California, Brazil and Sri Lanka. We editorialized that the concept sounded crazy, but admitted that the company has a long history of making the impossible possible.
Here’s how Google described its concept:
“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.”
Google Loon: Now
The United Kingdom’s highly-respected BBC.com just reported that “Google believes it is on course to have enough internet-beaming balloons in the stratosphere to form a ring over part of the world next year.”
In theory, It told the BBC the balloon network will allow Google to beam internet service to anyone living below the balloons. Three of Indonesia’s mobile networks intend to start testing Project Loon transmissions in 2016, and Sri Lanka is also signed on for future testing.
Each lighter-than-air balloon carries all the gear necessary to send and receive data streams, a back-up radio, flight computer, GPS location tracker, and an altitude control system that allows ground controllers to shift the balloons to find winds that will take it to the proper location, and, of course, solar panels to power the whole shebang.
The progress is astonishing on a number of fronts:
For example, internet speeds have increased from 3G-like data speeds in the early tests to 10 megabits per second today.
Balloon lifespan is another area that’s seen tremendous progress. The early balloons lasted only five to ten days, but the latest generation of Google Loon balloons now last as long as 187 days.
Google has also improved the launch process. “It used to take 14 people an hour or two to launch a balloon,” said Project Loon VP Mike Cassidy in a BBC interview. “Now with an automated crane we can launch a balloon every 15 minutes with two or three people.”
Cassidy believes Google Loon could become a reality in 2016. “We hope next year to build our first continuous ring [of balloons] around the world, and to have some sort of continuous coverage for certain regions,” Cassidy continued. “And if all goes well after, then after that we will start rolling out our first beta commercial customers.”
Facebook’s internet.org: Then
The second entrant in the worldwide cheap internet sweepstakes was Facebook, the social media giant, and its partners. Here’s how we reported the situation in November, 2014.
Last year, we reported that “[Facebook], 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.
TechCrunch.com said their partnership intends “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.”
Facebook’s internet.org: Now
Here’s how Facebook’s internet.org now describes its mission:
Since we launched Internet.org, it’s been our mission to find ways to provide internet connectivity to the more than 4 billion people who are not yet online. Many of these people live within range of at least a 3G wireless signal, and our work in the last year with mobile operators across 17 countries has provided more than a billion people with access to relevant basic internet services. But 10 percent of the world’s population lives in remote locations with no internet infrastructure, and the kinds of infrastructure technologies used everywhere else — things like fiber-optic cable, microwave repeaters and cell towers — may be a challenge to deploy cost-effectively in these regions.
That’s where the Connectivity Lab comes in. Our goal is to accelerate the development of a new set of technologies that can drastically change the economics of deploying internet infrastructure. We are exploring a number of different approaches to this challenge, including aircraft, satellites and terrestrial solutions. Our intention is not to build networks and then operate them ourselves, but rather to quickly advance the state of these technologies to the point that they become viable solutions for operators and other partners to deploy.
It’s easy to put pretty words on the internet, but can Facebook and its internet.org partners report any real progress? You bet they can. internet.org’s Connectivity Lab recently announced a major achievement:
A full-scale version of Aquila, the partnership’s high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft, has rolled off the assembly line and is now ready for flight tests. Get this. Aquila has the wingspan of a 737 but because of its unique design and and carbon-fiber construction, it weighs a tiny fraction of the giant Boeing aircraft.
It gets even more amazing. Aquila aircraft will be able to cruise above remote regions of the globe for as long as three months at an altitude of up to 90,000 feet, beaming internet signals down to anyone who lives below.
Elon Musk and SpaceX: Then
Last year we reported that Elon Musk and SpaceX had a plan to deliver worldwide cheap internet access with a network of 700 low-orbit satellites. (SpaceX, of course, is the company that’s figured out how to launch low-cost payloads into orbit — an accomplishment that’s eluded the braintrust at NASA for 60 years.)
ExtremeTech.com reported, “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.”
Elon Musk and SpaceX: Now
So how’s it going for the founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors? Any progress? According to IFLscience.com, the third time may not be the charm for Musk.
Elon Musk is currently seeking government approval to begin testing on a project to broadcast the Internet from 4,000 satellites orbiting the Earth. He claims he wants to beam high-speed Internet to all corners of the world.
The plan would transform SpaceX from a company based solely on rockets and spaceflight into an Internet provider to rival the likes of Comcast, Verizon, and other telecom companies in a worldwide market thought to be worth over $2.1 trillion annually. Musk’s plan is to send his Falcon 9 rocket up into space, and then deploy a fleet of satellites around the planet.
He announced his plan earlier in the year, but it has just been released that SpaceX has made a formal request for permission from the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to begin testing next year. Musk wants to find out if the current antenna on his satellites would be strong enough to send the signals back down to Earth.
Grand as his scheme may be, and even if the FCC grant him permission to start his testing, the logistics of beaming high-speed Internet across the globe still make his chances of pulling this off fairly slim. Musk himself has already conceded that getting permission to operate in countries across the world would be “difficult, if not impossible.”
Looks like we were wrong — there has been progress. In the wrong direction. What was originally a cost-prohibitive plan for 700 satellites has now increased to an even costlier plan for 4000 satellites.
It costs NASA as much as $50,000,000 to put a single satellite in orbit, but Musk hopes Space-X can bring that cost down to a mere $1,000,000 per satellite. A little quick math (4000 satellites x $1,000,000) brings the cost of just the launch project to a mind-boggling $4 billion. With a “b”. As they say in those annoying television toy commercials, “Batteries not included.” (MARK – IS MY MATH RIGHT?
Although a cost like that makes would most billionaires blanch, Elon Musk isn’t like most billionaires. Still, Musk’s success is entirely dependent on a technology that does not yet exist, and has suffered several very public failures.
Most rockets are designed to be expendable, to burn up on reentry. But Musk’s SpaceX rockets are designed to reenter the atmosphere, return to a landing site, and make a vertical landing, so that they can be refueled and quickly reused. SpaceX claims it’s made great strides toward this goal, but the bottom line is that they’ve had nothing but failures so far.
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” Musk said on the Space-X website. “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”
Can Elon Musk pull it off? We’re no rocket scientists, but we do have a calculator and even if SpaceX can figure out how to bring its rockets back home and reuse them, its still left with an unimaginably large price tag on its 4000-satellite network.
Our best guess on the future
A year ago, we laughed at the concept of Google Loon’s balloon network, but twelve short months later Google may have the last laugh.
If this were a horserace and we were handicappers, we’d pick Google to win, Facebook to show, and SpaceX to be put out of its misery after breaking a leg going around the first turn.
But let’s do this review again next November. We’ve been surprised before and we hope to be surprised again. Because nothing would be better for the world’s poor — and nothing would make us happier — than having all three of these systems bringing cheap internet to the world.