Imagine the world where being lost at sea or stuck on a remote island did not have to mean being cut off from the rest of the world. In fact, this scenario is the goal that Google, Facebook, Boeing, Samsung, Oneweb (led by Richard Branson) and many others are racing to achieve – the world where anyone, anywhere can connect to the internet. Even in 2014, there were about 4.3 billion people without internet access, according to the World Economic Forum. Quite apart from missing out on the latest cute cat videos, they are missing out on the numerous economic benefits that come with internet connection. According to Deloitte, if developing countries could bridge the internet penetration gap they would experience an estimated 72% increase GDP rate, generate $2.2 trillion in GDP and create more than 140 million new jobs over 15 years. The company that wins the race to become the first to plug the entire world into the internet will bring social and economic benefits to the whole planet.
Developed by Google with their parent company Alphabet, the plan is to use air-balloons with solar powered electronic systems that connect a ground-based telecommunications network with mobile devices through local wireless providers. This concept has been successfully tested with telecoms partners around the world. Google are currently seeking to improve three key technologies – altitude control systems, stratospheric simulations, and a flight controller that incorporates machine learning. Once perfected these will allow smaller groups of balloons to form clusters over concentrated areas rather than having to rely on massive fleets of balloons working in shifts as they move around the world. In February 2017, the Project Loon team announced they had figured out how to use fewer balloons to accomplish the task.
Satellites, Drones, and Cell Phones
Other players plan to use drones, satellites and creative ways of connecting cell phones with each other. Google tried using drones, but later haltedProject Titan (which Facebook tried to
buy) in January 2017, without specifying why. Facebook is still optimistic their drone idea will work, after successfully testing their Project Aquila variation in the UK, despite a test-flight crash in the Arizona desert in June 2016. Mark Zuckerberg himself is working on this project, trying to find creative ideas for connecting people in rural and developing countries with Internet. org. The project partners with mobile phone operators to provide basic internet services to the 70% of the population without online access. In 2017, Internet. org claimed to have provided internet to more than 50 million users in Q4 of 2016.
Samsung and Boeing have big ideas for stretching the world wide web around the globe, using satellites. Similarly, OneWeb, led by the Virgin Atlantic founder, Richard Branson, has already raised $1.7 billion since 2015 from SoftBank for their 648-satellite system which would offer global internet as soon as 2019.
And what are the barriers? In some developing countries, political factors influence the possibility of providing populations with free internet, with the freedom of information on the web seen as a threat. In addition, ensuring the security of connected products is hard, especially for new products as too little is known about the damage hackers using malware could cause, or how a malfunction in one part would affect a truly global grid.
So who will win the race? It is difficult to say at this stage. Perhaps the project with most sustainability, which puts Project Loon at the forefront.