Over the last years, most innovative Internet-companies – Google and Facebook – spent more time and resources on resolving the problems of connecting billions of people to the worldwide network, with the residents of hard-to-reach regions being top priority. But what is more important, is the fact that the Internet leaders suggest turning away from the old traditional cables (that are expensive and hard to lay through oceans and mountains), and to share the Internet through the sky. This simple idea has grabbed Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors. What waits for us in the near future of the Internet and what roles will Google, Facebook and SpaceX play in this game?
In March, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company successfully completed the first test flight of an aircraft in the UK that was invented and created by tech specialists from Facebook. The aircraft is a part of the Internet.org project that will help connect two-thirds of the World’s population from remote communities that still don’t have access to the Internet.
According to its creators, the aircraft should fly at attitudes of more than 18 thousand meters for months, charging its batteries with solar energy that are installed on its wings. The final version will have a wingspan greater that a Boeing 737 but will still weigh less than a car, according to Mark Zuckerberg.
The engineering director of the Facebook Connectivity Lab, Yael Maguire, said last year that Internet-connected drones will be roughly the size of a Boeing 747 with a length of about six or seven Priuses, but with a weight of only four of the tires of a Prius. These planes have to fly above the weather and above all airspace. But one of the biggest questions is how such flights will be regulated. Right now there is a ‘one pilot per plane’ rule, but Maguire said that they need a regulation change that’s open to having one pilot managing up to 100 of these solar-powered aircrafts.
The Facebook team faces a whole bunch of challenges in the process of launching this project. Also there is no information of who will actually deploy these drones. But the one of the biggest ones is how the aircraft will provide the Internet to the end users. The company is going to equip the aircraft with lasers (invisible to a human eye) that will enable the transferring data at a high speeds, because lasers consume less energy than microwaves. Facebook believes that special receivers installed on buildings will be able to receive these laser signals.
As for the aircrafts actually providing the Internet, Facebook is looking at an optimistic three-to-five-year lifespan. Facebook notes that this solution is more durable and reliable than high-altitude balloons. You will see that Facebook is referring here to Google and their Project Loon, which will be the next case we talk about.
Project Loon by Google
Project Loon is a global network of high-altitude balloons to connect people in remote and rural regions where there is no Internet connection. The first pilot tests were launched in 2013 and involved launching 30 balloons in New Zealand. The balloons are 15 meters wide and 12 meters high and travel up to 20 kilometers into the stratosphere. They use the wind to move and solar power to charge their batteries. These balloons can stay in the sky up to 3 months.
As the same for Facebook’s aircraft, Google has chosen this height because of the absence of airplanes and unstable weather conditions. But also at this height there are constant winds that are used for floating the balloon. Project Loon uses a ‘special algorithm’ to stay in some exact parts of the sky, all by using the blowing winds.
The end users will receive Internet connection by LTE technology. The Internet speed is planning to be 5 MB for smartphones and 22 MB for PCs that will be connected through antennas. It’s expected that one balloon could cover an area of 40 kilometers.
The balloons have already been being tested since the summer of 2013, mainly in the southern regions of the planet. There are some reasons for this: firstly, in the southern hemisphere there are lots of regions with a small population density and high demand for the Internet; second, in the southern countries flight regulations are simpler than in the US or Europe. The balloons have already completed a successful flight from New Zealand to Latin America, which is over 9 thousand kilometers, and then flew back around the globe for another successful connection test in Australia.
It’s expected that Project Loon will be used more in the Third World Counties, but some highly-developed countries are interested in it as well. The Project Leader of Project Loon, Mike Cassidy has already had a meeting with some Japanese officials. One possible use for Project Loon, is that it can bring people back online after disasters, for example after hurricane or typhoon. As long as people have a battery powered smartphone in their pocket, they will be able to instantly get access to the balloon network.
During the tests, Google was able to extend the operating time of the balloons. At the beginning the goal was to have them floating for three months. But the newest record was a balloon that lasted 187 days in the air, circumnavigating the globe nine times.
However, there are some difficulties. The main one is the complexity of forecasting the air flows in the stratosphere: Google get forecasts for 15 days, but after the fifth or sixth day the quality of the forecast degrades. As a result it’s really difficult to determine in advance the trajectory of the balloons.
According to Cassidy, Project Loon is a multi-billion dollar business. “Today 4.5 billion people don’t have an Internet access. Take 5 percent, so we’re talking about 250 million people. If those people can pay a small part of their monthly income, for example only 5 dollars, then you’re going to have a billion dollars a month in revenue, tens of billions a year in revenue”.
It’s expected that by 2016, the first customers in rural South America, South Africa, and Oceania will be able to sign up for cellular LTE service provided by Google balloons.
SpaceX Satellite Internet
Last year The Wall Street Journal informed us that Google was going to invest in satellites to extend Internet access to unwired regions of the globe. Later, WSJ reported that Google’s satellite employee Greg Wyler left the company and began to work closely with Elon Musk and SpaceX. At the same time, there was an announcement that Wyler and Musk were going to launch 700 Internet-satellites into space.
On January 20th Google and mutual-fund giant Fidelity Investments invested $1 billion in SpaceX. On the same day Elon Musk unveiled the details of their long-term plan to build a high-speed, low-latency satellite system. He has proposed building an array of satellites in low-Earth orbit at an altitude of approximately 750 miles. Musk thinks the entire network would operate with 4000 satellites at fill capacity. His long-term plan has a vision of beginning launches in the next five years and the network coming fully online in 12-15 years with an expected costs of $10 billion.
But some insiders reported that there will actually be two satellite systems: there were some fundamental differences between Musk and Wyler. As a result Greg Wyler announces a similar effort through a startup called OneWeb. Through OneWeb, Wyler looks to expand his vision with hundreds of satellites that will deliver their signals down to low-cost, solar-powered rooftop antennas. OneWeb has announced that Qualcomm and the Virgin Group will invest in this startup, which is expected to cost around $2 billion.
Musk’s plan does have somethings in common with Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s aircrafts. All of these plans are focusing on how to extend the Internet to more people. But Google’s and Facebook’s focus is on and generating more users for their platforms. Musk, in contrast, is thinking much bigger – his final goal is to finance the construction and colonization of a city on Mars using his satellite network.