WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Over half the worlds population has no access to the internet, or the services, or benefits it offers. These audacious global internet programs want to resolve that.
Internet access is cheap, fast and available everywhere. Mobile phone and communications companies throw unlimited data plans around like they’re confetti and 4G and 5G let you take the web anywhere.
If only all that was true.
Accessing the web might be simple enough if you live in a developed country – although even there the coverage can be very spotty as anyone living in the countryside, or rural locations, like myself, knows all too well.
I live three miles outside of a major city in the south of England but my British Telecom broadband and mobile coverage, which both rank in the bottom 4% for speed means that anything other than web surfing is almost impossible and that even uploading the images and headers for these articles is painful.
However, as painful as all that is the “service” that I get is still better than the service that over 3.5 billion other people get – which today is, surprisingly to many people, none. And it’s still a better service than another 1 billion people for whom the internet is an occasional, expensive luxury dogged by painfully slow page loads and frequent signal drop outs. Suddenly my own awful broadband experience pales in comparison.
So what’s the internet’s next step?
While it might not seem like it to many of you reading this article the communications infrastructure that supports the internet is still a work in progress and, as companies like Google and Huawei, race to lay ever fatter and faster Terabit internet cables at the bottom of the worlds’ oceans it is increasingly looking like the future of the internet is in the hands of the heavens.
Although satellites carry barely 1% of today’s global internet traffic there’s a space race to increase that to 10%, and, looking further into the future there are companies and billionaire individuals who have their eyes set on 100% although that, it has to be said, is nothing more than a visionaries pipe dream. At the moment. Maybe when we get to Mars in 2026 – after all, who’s going to want to lay internet cables on Mars?
In the meantime back to Earth.
So who are the major players? Well, topping the celebrities list there’s Elon Musk ‘s SpaceX “Communications project” and Sir Richard Branson’s backed “OneWeb project”, both of which want to put hundreds of low flying satellites into orbit to give everyone on Earth an internet connection that ironically would probably be better than mine. Maybe I should move…
Satellites are generally thought of as bad for internet access and are often only used as a last resort to connect remote areas, such as island communities together. And even though there are over 2,000 satellites orbiting the Earth today – recording and managing everything from TV and the weather, Earth observations to GPS, they normally cost $60 million per launch and host precious little two way traffic. Then there’s the latency issue – a mere half second delay, for example, makes video calling almost impossible.
But the technology is evolving. The size and cost of satellites is drastically decreasing, with so called CubeSats, NanoSats and SmallSats – some of which are as little as 10 cubic centimetres in size – and which cost about $50,000 to make and as little as $120,000 to launch. And while huge, pricey satellites sit in a geosynchronous orbit 22,236 miles from Earth, these smaller satellites are designed to fly in constellations in a very low Earth, Sun-synchronous orbit, as low as 350 miles up.
The result is far less latency, which is on a par with traditional fibre optic cables and the ability to provide internet access to even the remotest of areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Amazon basin in Brazil through to remote wildernesses of Canada and the Australian outback. And Winchester. Sign me up! But achieving constant line of sight requires far more satellite launches. And that’s where Musk’s SpaceX and Branson’s Virgin Galactic come in.
OneWeb plans to launch 700 satellites into low Earth orbit – mostly on the back of Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne rocket, which takes off from under the wing of a Boeing 747. OneWeb’s other investors include the Virgin Group itself as well as Qualcomm, Airbus, Coca-Cola, Intelsat and Hughes Network Systems and so far it’s inked a deal with Virgin Galactic to launch the first 39 of its satellites on LauncherOne, with an option for 100 more – although in time they may also use SpaceX’s famous Falcon 9 reusable rockets as well. OneWeb’s satellites are being built by Airbus and are set to start launching in 2018 where they’ll be “lobbed” into orbit 500 miles up and deliver 6Gbps each, with the whole constellation giving regions a total network capacity of about 4.2Tbps which is more than the total capacity that currently flies backwards and forwards across the Atlantics fat undersea internet pipes.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk on the other hand, who just petitioned the FCC to launch a 4,425 satellite communications network, plans to launch a constellation of satellites, also 500 miles up, turning his company into a global communications provider by 2021 which in communications timeframes is almost overnight.
Earlier this year Musk awarded the tender to make the satellites to a Seattle based company who will start producing them en masse in 2017 but, as being technically feasible is one thing, the system has to be commercially feasible and this is where SpaceX’s reusable launch systems come in – knocking the cost of launching clusters of satellites down from tens of millions of dollars to “just millions”.
Meanwhile other players in the space include Facebook and Google who also want a slice of the next four billion to get online, but both think even low flying satellites go too far. Facebook’s Connectivity Lab have been trialling solar powered Aquila drones that fly in the stratosphere at 65,000 feet – above regulated airspace and in a layer of the atmosphere that is largely free from strong winds and bad weather – which can broadcast a powerful signal to towns and cities below for several months on end.
Google’s Project Loon on the other hand goes one step further again, using fleets of helium filled balloons that are controlled by an artificial intelligence based communications and control system that guide them through and around the strong winds that race around the stratosphere to fill the gaps in global web connectivity. It’s already been suggested they would work well after earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding, providing instant extra capacity that doesn’t rely on damaged infrastructure.
“Loon is interesting because it’s based on large numbers of inexpensive devices providing a wide area of coverage, mostly focused on deprived areas,” says Liam Fisher, director at Builtvisible, “Loon is bound to be a better option than satellite connections, especially given that it negates the need for expensive rocket launches to put satellites into space,” he said.
But Loon has the opposite problem, as Google have found out. Polyethylene plastic balloons only stay afloat for 100 days in the stratosphere before they’re damaged and holed by UV radiation, so lots of small, frequent but cheap launches are needed.
“Many of those projects seem outlandish in nature, but we’re unlikely to get a problem like this right first time,” says Fisher, who notes that the first functional undersea communications cables lasted only long enough to transmit a couple of messages. It took functional innovations around cable insulation and signal repeating to create the vast global network that eventually became known as the internet.
“I think we’ll see the same happen here – first attempts like Project Loon will probably find limited success, but they’ll form an important knowledge base to build upon in subsequent efforts,” he says.
Ambitious they may all be, but whether it’s Aquila, OneWeb, Project Loon or SpaceX all of these attempts underline just how big the problem of internet equality is.
The biggest challenge, of course, for all of these systems is to remain cost effective and technically relevant over the long term but when you compare the cost of digging up roads and fields to lay fibre – which always runs into the billions, if not tens of billions of dollars, let alone the logistical issues maybe, just maybe, the internet’s future lies in the lap of the heavens after all.