Yesterday Mark Zuckerberg authored a post on Facebook announcing that several members of Ascenta, a UK firm specializing in unmanned aircrafts (known to most as drones), were joining his team. But what does Facebook have to do with drones? The same thing Google has to do with space balloons: an attempt to bring widespread internet access to the global population. Although internet access on our phones, tablets, and computers is taken as a given in the developed world, only a third of the world’s population has access to the internet, leaving over 4 billion unconnected. That’s a big number, and Facebook is just one of several technology leaders coming up with innovative ideas to increase access, in conjunction with mobile network operators, nonprofits, and others. Here’s a roundup (though certainly not an exhaustive list) of the key players in the race to access “the next billion”, and their futuristic-sounding ideas:
Drones, Satellites, and Lasers: The latest idea to bring internet access to everyone is based not on old-school cables and towers, but will instead “beam” internet signals down to unconnected and remote areas using a combination of satellites, lasers, and low flying unmanned aircrafts.
- Key Players: Internet.org, a partnership between big mobile and technology players including Facebook, Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, and others.
- How it Works: This recently released video explains the idea well, but it will involve several layers of airborne connections, including low orbit and geo-synchronous satellites, and an on-the-ground connection which will have to seamlessly move between signals to provide continuous access.
Balloons: Another sky-based idea, this involves high-altitude balloons traveling above the earth and providing WiFi capability to those below. It’s an idea which has been criticized by some for being so out-there, but is already being tested and you can even track the balloon progress online.
- Key Players: Google, also part of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, whose other partners include USAID, the Omidyar Network, and local organizations in the developing world.
- How it Works: Balloons travel about 20 kilometers above the earth using solar power for energy. They move with the wind, in coordination with software algorithms that determine where each balloon needs to be in relation to other balloons and the Earth. Each balloon can provide internet access at 3G speeds to an area of about 40 km in diameter.
Fiber-Optic cables: The old approach, fiber-optic cables are how much of the world already gets online. There are over half a million miles of undersea cables which transmit data between continents, but in developing countries challenges have arisen when trying to build the “last mile” of connectivity- the one that actually gets the Internet into homes and businesses.
- Key players: Telecom companies, governments, and others across the globe.
- How it Works: Cables transmit data undersea and on land, and in Africa almost all coastal countries are already connected by this method. However, when international cables “dock” in countries such as South Africa they still need to travel inland via more cables, which is why it takes so long for remote areas to get reliable internet access.
Public libraries: Less of a technological innovation, this idea will use the existing infrastructure of public libraries across the globe to give communities access to internet connections, and additionally provide citizens with training on computers and the internet.
- Key Players: The Gates Foundation
- How it Works: This system takes advantage of the staff and technology already being offered in many public libraries, and uses libraries as a hub to provide internet access where there isn’t any. The Gates Foundation has done this before: free Internet in US libraries was one of their very first grants in 1997.
And many more: There are many other smaller players coming up with ideas on how to best spread connectivity to the global unwebbed. Companies actually based and already working in the developing world have a unique perspective on the issues that arise when trying to get online in many parts of the world.
- Key Players: Newer organizations such as BRCK, Otgplaya, and Librii.
- How it Works: These companies are using various technologies to connect the world. BRCK is a device which can act as a back-up Internet connection when power goes out (a common issue across Africa), or a primary connection in rural areas. It utilizes mobile network data when other connections are unavailable.
All of these ideas make it clear that it isn't a question of if the Internet will reach people in remote, developing areas, but when. However, drones and balloons flying up in space are still a long way off, and will undoubtedly involve months and years of testing before they are a widespread reality. In the meantime, mobile connections continue to go up in the developing world, and become a more reliable way of reaching the previously unreachable every day. Whatever comes next is anyone's guess, but it will certainly be an interesting race to watch.