Facebook has revealed plans to take the Internet to hundreds of millions of underprivileged people. Through a mixture of high-altitude, solar panel-powered endurance planes (pictured), satellites, and lasers, the plan is to bring Internet connectivity en masse to Third World countries. The goals extend beyond mere business expansion, as the advancements could “create another 140 million new jobs, lift 160 million people out of poverty, and reduce child mortality by hundreds of thousands.” It’s another bold shift in a direction for Facebook (recent business acquisitions include a move into virtual reality technology), and what has been called “Connectivity Lab” could have wide-reaching global results.
Officially announced from their Newsroom, the company indicated it branched out into partnerships with technology companies in August 2013. The partnership has seen Ascenta, NASA, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory unite to create the technology which is now emerging. As Facebook lay down the claim they’re “Inventing the future of connectivity,” here are the details which could connect billions more across the world.
Advanced Communication Technology
Facebook’s latest partnership involves NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center in a bid to understand more advanced ventures into space, which would offer Internet connectivity across the world. Meantime, Ascenta, a British company with expertise in creating high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) aircraft, has been drafted in to create drones to offer Internet connections to Third World nations. An image of the prototype is pictured above, with reliance on solar panels to power it for months on end.
It’s all part of Internet.org, which has a mission of improving and extending Internet access as well as creating jobs and reducing poverty. Facebook’s Yael Maguire openly discussed the rapidly developing technology in an official YouTube video.
The technology required is highly complex. Developments costs, practicality, effectiveness, and long-term ability are areas which are being thoroughly researched and tested. There are a number of concepts in development to tie the ambitious ideas together. Free-space optical communication (FSO) is one, which utilizes light directed in free space to transmit data through space. “Invisible laser beams in the infrared part of the spectrum,” as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained. It is considered a technology with immense promise, as it would vastly improve Internet connection speeds. They are effective power savers, and will still work as impressively as very strong modern bandwith connections. However, adverse conditions (such as snow and pollution) have been known to disrupt them.
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites are also being considered. The former would be between 160-2,000 km above the Earth as the planet turns, the latter in an orbit moving at the same speed as the Earth whilst 35,786 km above sea level. The problem with this approach is they are slow to make, and very expensive. An alternative, as you’ll now be aware, is to deploy drones. These have unique challenges to face: the lower HALE aircraft fly to Earth, the stronger the Internet signal will be, yet environmental conditions (such as a strong wind) have to be considered to maximise the signal. Due to this, Facebook has suggested a figure of 65,000 feet as the “ideal” height. This is believed to be the perfect altitude for signal strength. Ascenta are currently developing models.
Internet.org explains, “For all of these systems, the team is looking at Free-space optical communication, or FSO, is a way of using light to transmit data through space using invisible, infrared laser beams. FSO is a promising technology that potentially allows us to dramatically boost the speed of Internet connections provided by satellites and drones.” So, whilst FSO and HALE would appear to be integral to the plans, satellites don’t appear to be a suitable option.
Whilst the world waits for this technology to develop, Mark Zuckerberg has been busy setting out his plans for a truly united World Wide Web.
Connecting the World
Zuckerberg has written at length about how he intends to get his dream to fruition, producing an 11-page paper titled “Connecting the World from the Sky.” Although he concedes “Connectivity isn’t an end in itself,” he has noted it is a “powerful tool for change.”
Key to this are the differing requirements for communities, as every area of the world has unique demands. He notes, “Our research has shown that approximately 80-90 percent of the world’s population lives today in areas already covered by 2G or 3G networks. These environments are mostly urban or semi-urban, and the basic cell and fiber infrastructure has already been constructed here by mobile operators. For most people, the obstacles to getting online are primarily economic.” He adds, “Our strategy is to develop different types of platform to serve different population densities.” The different types of platform have been explained as:
- Urban connectivity: Wireless mesh networks to provide cost effective, reliable connection for everyone (to be outlined in a later press release).
- Medium-density drones: For “limited geographical regions,” providing efficient connectivity. This would be provided through solar-powered HALE aircraft.
- Low population satellites: With areas of low population, satellites can provide Internet access. Current communication satellites are disadvantaged by their extreme cost, but analogous ideas are being mooted.
The deployment of these ideas is going to be the difficult bit. Whilst it’s acknowledged the HALE aircraft are by far the most feasible concept, Facebook first has to get its head around the fundamental laws of physics. Enlisting NASA to help them with their elaborate project is a bonus, but the sheer scale of the project means we’ll likely see major changes in the Connectivity Lab dream before anything is launched. As Facebook admitted, “No one company can do this work by itself, and Facebook will not deploy these technologies alone.” It’s an impressive project, but they’re going to need all the support they can get to reach its conclusion.