Alliance for Affordable Internet
The Alliance for Affordable Internet
Facebook and Google are both part of an initiative called A4AI, the Alliance for Affordable Internet. A4AI has a mission to bring affordable internet to the entire world. Currently 2/3 of people in the world don’t have internet access, and increasing network reach by regular means is simply not cost efficient. In less developed countries, the price tag for installing broadband internet is about a third of a household’s monthly income. Facebook and Google, however, are taking a more cost effective approach.
Facebook’s Solar Drone Army and Project Loon
Both Facebook and Google plan to build aerial vehicles that will circle earth 20km off the ground with the intent to provide internet to rural areas. Facebook’s Connectivity Lab has partnered with a UK based drone building company named Ascenta, a forerunner in solar UAV technology. By working together, the companies intend to develop high altitude solar powered drones that form a “web” of interconnected data telemetry via lasers, or FSO (Free Space Optics). Google is working on something similar, called project loon. Rather than broadcasting internet using solar-powered planes, Loon provides internet using solar powered balloons made by Raven Aerostar.
Tech/Specs: Project Loon
Project Loon is the more advanced of the two projects (Though even Google thinks it’s a crazy idea, hence the name). In June 2013, thirty balloons were launched from New Zealand’s South Island and were able to provide internet to a group of pilot testers (Test goal complete, not so loony after all). Project Loon is set to continue through 2014 with a goal of establishing a ring of internet balloons around the 40th southern parallel. The balloons don’t contain any method of propulsion and can only move up and down to catch the winds of the stratosphere. While this seems like it would require navigational guesswork, Google reports that the winds of the stratosphere are fairly consistent and well monitored. Using wireless control and real-time weather information, Google can apparently control the balloon’s movements very accurately. The balloons transmit internet access by communicating between themselves and ground stations using 2.4 and 5.8 GHz ISM Bands. Any individual interested in Loon’s wireless network can pick up the balloons’ signal using a receiver attached to their house. These balloons can stay afloat for up to 100 days and deliver speeds comparable to 3G.
Tech/Specs: Solar Drones
Facebook has done research in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit Satellites, Low Earth Orbit Satellites and obviously solar drones. They all have their own benefits, but solar drones are looking very promising for a number of reasons. Solar drones will use a similar technique to Google’s Project Loon balloons by flying at high altitudes. This is optimal because it is outside of regulated air traffic zones, above the effects of the weather and in a place with very little wind. Facebook has chosen drones over balloons because of the better control they offer. In an article on the subject via internet.org, Facebook states that “With the efficiency and endurance of high altitude drones, it’s even possible that aircraft could remain aloft for months or years.”
Facebook also intends to improve on inter-drone communication technology by using FSO technology (Free Space Optics as mentioned before). If they can get it working (and that’s a big if), FSO could offer speeds comparable to grounded fiber optic networks. FSO’s also consume much less power than regular microwave systems. Unfortunately FSO lasers cannot penetrate clouds or bad weather and are very difficult to orient, so backup radio systems would also be required on the drones. Facebook has yet to set its first large scale test date for its drones.
Both of these projects are very exciting. Facebook’s drones using Free Space Optics, if they were to work, would offer faster speeds and a longer lifespan than Google’s balloons. But Google already has a couple steps on Facebook seeing as its project is up and running, and definitely works. Though our world seems already internet-saturated, Google and Facebook both have visions to take data access to the next level and revolutionize the way we access the vast, fast-growing internet.