Around 40% of the global population has internet access (Internet Live Stats). There are obvious benefits to increasing access that extend from increasing a buying market, to providing access to micro-loans to poor populations, to providing education to the world, and multiple companies are taking this challenge on. Facebook Aquila, Google Loon, and OneWeb are some of the big players, and each has a different approach. I also found sources that Airbus and SpaceX were also looking to tackle this issue.
Google Loon is a network of balloons that would fly at an altitude of about 20km (~65,000 ft. or double the altitude at which commercial air traffic flies). Each solar powered unit would send an LTE (4G) signal to the ground, where it could be picked up by phones. Each balloon stays airborne for approximately 100 days, meaning that new balloons would need to be consistently manufactured. Google has determined that it will be able to support this through automated manufacturing, and through devices that would safely launch a balloon every 20 minutes. In looking at the quickly advancing technology we have, I would suggest that the turnover of balloons flying is a good thing, as the technology flying can be quickly updated. When we move from 4G to 5G, for example, Google would be able to upgrade the technology that the balloons they launch are carrying, which means a relatively quick infrastructure upgrade.
Facebook’s Aquila project is similar in nature. However, instead of using balloons that are carried by winds, they would fly solar powered drones in circles at around the same altitude as the Loon project, each of which would be airborne for approximately 90 days. Aquila’s technology operates differently than Google’s. Rather than directly sending an LTE signal, the network of planes would send laser beams to a local distribution sites, which would have an LTE signal to the surrounding population. Additional ground units appear to be needed in order to accomplish the strategy.
OneWeb, a Virgin backed project, is a planned network of 648 low orbit satellites that form a global grid of coverage. In order to receive coverage from OneWeb, a community can have a small solar powered unit that can be mounted on a rooftop, for example. This unit puts out WiFi and LTE (4G) signals.
Technologies from Google and Facebook fly at an altitude that does not interfere with commercial aircraft. However, I’m curious about the future of transportation technology. Is it possible that future travel from New York to Shanghai could bring us to these same altitudes, taking advantage of the very thin air, and the same wind that would carry Google’s balloons? Is it possible that the increasing private space industry will result in more commercial space travel? Could these web delivery technologies interfere with those efforts? When asked, in an interview with CNN, whether there was enough room in space for multiple companies to be doing this, OneWeb’s CEO, Greg Wyler, indicated that we are “scale blind to the issue,” and that multiple companies doing this is not a problem. However, I wonder if the better question is, “are there logistical problems with putting this many objects in the sky around the same altitude?” One common theme in the sources I found was that each geographic area has different needs, and will be covered by different solutions. This may reduce the conflict between many objects in the sky, but only time will tell whether there will be an issue in the more distant future that impacts our future travel means. For all I know, by the time this becomes an issue, we could have Star Trek like beaming technology that would make this problem null and void.