According to some estimates, over half of the world’s population lacks internet access. In many more regions the access they do have is unreliable. Of course, this makes it difficult for people and businesses in those areas to participate in and benefit from the global online community. As communication shifts further towards the digital, these individuals are at risk of being left behind completely.
Investments in the fiber optic cable needed to power high-speed internet solutions can be expensive, which is why this infrastructure is often absent in much of the developing world. This has not gone unnoticed by some of the world’s largest tech firms. In fact, SpaceX, Google, Virgin Galactic, and even Facebook have announced plans to provide internet access across swathes of unconnected territory. To succeed at this goal, they will have to develop groundbreaking new ways of providing service.
Life on Mars?
Elon Musk‘s private spaceflight company SpaceX is looking to launch thousands of satellites in low-earth orbit, which would establish internet connections in even the most remote corners of the world. Unlike current geostationary satellite systems like SiriusXM, Hughesnet, and Inmarsat, SpaceX will maintain a high number of small satellites in an orbit close to the Earth’s surface for data-transmission latencies that rival fiber-based systems. Musk has stated that this project is a long term goal: while it may begin to become operational within five years, it might take up to 15 years to reach full capacity. This system is expected to cost in excess of $10 billion. Although the profits to be derived from this enterprise are unknown at present and might turn out to be illusory, Elon Musk has already decided what he will spend them on: establishing a human colony on Mars.
Meanwhile, search giant Google has been flirting with several ways of expanding internet coverage and, by extension, its user base around the world. Its Project Loon uses helium balloons in the stratosphere to facilitate communications between ground-based internet and cell phone users. Project Loon has already been tested in New Zealand and Brazil. Yet Google is hedging its bets – in April 2014, it purchased drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace, and this year it also announced a sizable investment in SpaceX. Clearly, Google doesn’t want to left out of any possible developments in the field.
Entrepreneur Greg Wyler, a former Google employee, is pursuing a satellite system similar to Elon Musk’s. The two businessmen had earlier discussed the possibility of working together, but it seems that they had differing visions, so Wyler is proceeding with his own system, called OneWeb. OneWeb’s endeavors are planned to be much cheaper and faster to build than SpaceX’s proposal. Their project could go active as soon as 2018, and it is expected to cost no more than $2 billion. Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson has decided to invest in OneWeb, which will build the company’s LauncherOne satellite technology.
Facebook, not to be outdone, has started its Connectivity Lab. In an effort to challenge Google’s balloons, this “Lab” will work towards developing drones that can be used to deliver internet connectivity. The drones themselves would be solar-powered, flying at an altitude much higher than typical aircraft do. Facebook is also exploring the use of free space optical communication, a means of sending data over large distances using infrared lasers.
These are just a few of the organizations looking to expand global internet coverage through unorthodox means. Allegedly, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is also considering entering this contest as well, through his secretive Blue Origin company. While the reasons behind all these endeavors vary and are not 100 percent altruistic, humanity as a whole does stand to benefit. When a country goes “online,” the Internet has the capacity to accelerate its economy and prompt almost immediate growth. Indeed, in the high-flying race to connect the globe, there can be no real losers.
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