Earlier this month rumour was that Internet.org was set to use a fleet of drones to spread internet access to the most remote and poorest places in the world. Today we found out that those rumours were spot-on when Facebook’s free-spending CEO, Mark Zuckerburg, took to his social network to spread the news that Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is working on building drones and satellites that use lasers to deliver the internet for all.
Internet.org is the organisation that Facebook, Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, and others joined last year with the specific goal of connecting the two-thirds of the world without internet access to the world-wide-web.
Our goal with Internet.org is to make affordable access to basic internet services available to every person in the world.
– Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerburg
Connecting areas with low population density – think the Northern Cape and the Karoo – is already possible using satellites broadcasting down to earth. The problem, according to Facebook’s Dr. Yael Maguire (he has a PhD), arises when you try to use the same technology in high-density urban areas like cities. Over long distances and in areas with a high building density, satellite signals become too weak to maintain the quality of the internet connection.
To overcome this technical hurdle, Facebook’s plan is to have a fleet of internet-providing solar-powered drones that fly at around 20 000 meters (65 000 ft) above the ground. They’d be closer to the Earth than satellites, and also well above commercial air traffic which generally occupies the 10 000 m – 12 000 m band (between 35 000 and 40 000 feet). Crucially, they’d also be out of reach of adverse weather conditions like high-speed winds and storms, meaning less down-time and a minimised needed for maintenance, something that’s essential to the project’s potential success.
The technology to pull this off already exists: companies like Titan Aerospace in the US have shown off solar-powered drones that can stay aloft for up to five years at a time by collecting sunlight during the day, and running off batteries at night.
Finding a way to provide the kind of high-speed connectivity required has another part of the team working on something called free-space-optics (FSO). FSO uses lasers to beam information around at super high speeds, in much the same way as fibre optic cables are used except through space, which Facebook says could help them “dramatically boost the speed of internet connections provided by satellites and drones”.
Facebook and Internet.org aren’t alone in trying to find a way to use high-altitude aircraft to provide internet to the unconnected masses. Last year Google announced its Project Loon, where a fleet of floating balloons would provide a similar style of connectivity for people in remote areas of the world without the internet.
As fantastic as this sounds (think “in the realm of fantasy” not “incredibly amazing”), with Facebook’s financial might behind the project and Mark Zuckerberg’s determination to use technology to solve complex modern problems, this plan could feasibly provide a workable, sustainable solution to the challenge of providing internet connectivity worldwide.
One can only hope.