Wireless Broadband for the MassesOctober 10, 2015 by Patrick Lloyd
As the Internet grows larger every day, 2/3 of the world still don't have access to the Web. SpaceX, Google, Facebook, OneWeb and many others are developing innovative technologies to cover the world as a warm, fuzzy blanket of information.
The Internet keeps getting bigger every day. In 2014 there were over 16 billion wireless connected devices alone and projected to reach 41 billion by around 2020. Cisco's Visual Networking Index estimates that by 2016, annual global IP traffic will exceed one zettabyte and two zettabytes by 2019. Access to inexpensive, uncensored, high-speed Internet is crucial to being a player in the global stage. So it may not seem like it, but two thirds of the world's population are not on the Internet (PDF warning) and even for the ones that are online, up to 70% don't have access to speeds above 10 Mbps. Fiber connections aren't always feasible to install, even in developed nations, so several companies have begun developing wireless technologies to bridge that gap and provide worldwide broadband access. A few of the emerging technologies are outlined below:
Facebook: Autonomous Drone Program
In 2013, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg introduced Internet.org which aims to bring together organizations and develop technologies for the purpose of getting Internet to developing nations. A year later, the Facebook Connectivity Lab came about to serve as a research and development branch of Internet.org. In July, Facebook presented their first drone, Dubbed Aquila, after the bird who carried Zeus / Jupiter's thunderbolts in Greco-Roman mythology, the solar-powered autonomous plane uses a combination of lasers and radio waves to broadcast to devices on the ground at up to 10 Gbps from over 20km in the air. The drone will be built with collaboration from individuals at Ascenta, a small aerospace company in southwestern England, as well as members of NASA's JPL and Ames Research Center.
Google: Project Loon
A similarly bizarre Internet accessibility project is being by spearheaded by Google X that involves the use of high altitude balloons, named Project Loon, to broadcast LTE mobile broadband to the ground below. Up near the edge of space between 10 km and 60km, the balloons use the varying wind patterns at different altitudes to stay positioned over a particular area. Several technical challenges present themselves with this technology such as mitigating damage from increased UV rays in the upper atmosphere and dealing with huge swings in daily temperature. While It may sound like outlandish science fiction, the first practical test of the system was successfully completed in New Zealand in 2013 and has since launched at test in Piaui, Brazil. Sri Lanka has has even signed an agreement with Google to deploy the system over their entire country in the near future.
OneWeb: LEO Satellite Constellation
Formerly known as WorldVu, OneWeb intends to launch a constellation of 648 satellites that communicate over the Ku-band spectrum to ground-based user terminals that rebroadcast WiFi, LTE, 3G and 2G. CEO Greg Wyler with financial backing from Richard Branson has secured partnerships with Airbus Defense and Space to design and manufacture the microsatellites. A primary requirement with this technology was that their phased array antennas cannot interfere with geostationary satellite transmissions at the equator. This led to the development of a technology known as Progressive Pitch, which gradually tilts the satellite as it nears the equator to avoid interference.
SpaceX: LEO Satellite Constellation
Elon Musk has partnered with Google and Fidelity to raise over a billion dollars to develop a low-earth orbit satellite constellation to compete with OneWeb. Their satellite development facility in Redmond, WA was announced January of this year to begin work on their eventual goal of 4000 “microsatellites”. Currently, they've requested an experimental license from the FCC to validate the hardware on two of them, which will communicate with SpaceX's three ground stations on the west coast of the US using the Ku-band spectrum. With the intention of reducing transmission latency, the devices will orbit about 150 km below most other communication satellites at 650 km.
These aren't the only players in the push to reach all corners of the earth with inexpensive Internet access -- the World Internet Project, for example, conducts research to this end with partners from all over the world. It's clear to see though that there are great gains to be made by increasing access to the Web, both for businesses developing the technologies and the people of the world who can finally have an eye, ear, and voice in the information landscape of tomorrow.