On 27th March, Facebook and Internet.org revealed their intentions to connect the developing world through aerial drones and satellites. This announcement inevitably brings to mind the Loon project that Google has been developing for the past three years. It is clear that these two companies are fighting a war to connect the unconnected to their platforms. However, the two biggest online advertising players of the world are adopting very different approaches. Mark Zuckerberg has gone into plenty of detail on Internet.org, and I highly recommend that you watch the video on Internet.org's website to see what Facebook has been up to lately:
This is a key point. While Google's balloons will float almost freely on the atmospheric winds to blanket the stratosphere with internet radios, Facebook's drones will hover over pre-defined population areas and therefore will require much more control. In some ways, Google's approach is similiar to low orbit satellites, a method of delivery it is also heavily invested in through its equity in O3b, the satellite start-up that intends to connect the other three billion users not connected to the internet today.
In terms of technology, Facebook is looking beyond traditional wireless networks and base stations to give people access to the Internet. Its strategy is to develop different technologies to serve different population densities across different use cases. This is similar to what we've been talking about in recent months regarding heterogeneous networks on the ground.
Suburban areas would be connected through drones, while more rural areas would rely on satellites. Both would use infrared lasers (Free Space Optics or FSO) to blanket whole areas with connectivity, with radio systems as a backup plan. I would also add that radio will play a significant part in redistributing bandwidth on the ground, once the technical issues of bringing bandwidth from above are resolved.
My take on Internet.org? It's about applying and focusing R&D, marketing dollars, and the power of Facebook's ecosystem to accelerate the future of access. It's not necessarily a reality today, but this is a true beginning.
But, how will it work?
According to Internet.org, a drone would operate ideally at 20km, and could broadcast a powerful signal that could cover cities with medium population density, while satellites could be left to cover rural areas.
A reality check on FSO: although they don't consume that much power, and can provide high bandwidths today, they only do so to a single point, not a wide area. Internet.org itself admits that "narrow optical beams are hard to orient correctly […]. The level of accuracy required is the equivalent of needing to hit a dime from 10 miles away, or hit the statue of liberty from California." On top of that, lasers require line of sight which means clouds and bad weather conditions would prevent the system from working.
These challenges will require some time to be solved, particularly regarding FSO systems. But, internet.org is aware of it and it is taking steps to find the solutions. For example, it has hired some of the leading experts in drones, satellites, mesh networks, radios and free space optics, and partnered with companies, non-profits and Governments.
A lot of this is not new stuff. The aerospace and defense industry has been researching these topics for quite some time. The key difference now is:
• The amount of computing power at our disposal
• Network virtualisation techniques
• Better power management and batteries
• Improved photo-voltaic efficiency (for powering drones and balloons)
And this is not an exhaustive list.
THERE IS A WAR out there between very powerful entities trying to connect the world together. The battle started off in the sea with submarine cables connecting the continents together. New battles are being fought in the sky and even further out to the stars with balloons, drones and satellites vying to connect the rest of the world.
Hopefully these initiatives will succeed in connecting the unconnected, fostering economic growth and transform traditional economies into knowledge economies, creating a level playing field for all. Ultimately this is a war for peace, and that can only be a good thing.