Companies are starting to connect the next 4 billion people

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Connect another 4 billion people to the internet. Check. Disrupt the communications industry. Check.

 

Approximately 40% of the world is connected to the internet and of those who aren’t, many are offline for one major reason – connectivity is expensive.

 

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If you think about the traditional model of connectivity, it starts with a tower that propagates radio signals to people’s devices. To connect people this way, mobile operators have to invest in and build out a significant infrastructure and land rights, fiber backhauls, cell towers and access to the power needed to run it all simply add to the cost and complexity.

While this business model suited the old way of doing things it has a significant flaw and it’s that flaw that’s left 60% of the world unconnected. In order to reach people in remote places communications companies often have to install and invest in more not less infrastructure and then when, once in a blue moon they do invest the lack of existing basic regional infrastructure such as roads and power hampers their progress.

 

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The fact that much of the world still lives on $1.25 a day then simply compounds the issue and is what often delivers the killer punch – companies have to invest significantly more money and resources to reach fewer people who have less disposable income to spend on goods and services and inevitably this makes the traditional business yard stick – the business case, untenable. The inevitable result is that projects never get past the drawing board but Facebook’s Project Aquila uses modern technology and an innovative business model to change that paradigm.

Over the past couple of years Facebook’s Connectivity Lab has been developing a range of scaleable new technologies such as high altitude stratospheric drones, satellite systems and terrestrial systems that can be used as building blocks by operators, governments and others to build out communication networks that are at least an order of magnitude cheaper than todays conventional systems.

 

Project Aquila
 

Aquila their high altitude, long endurance, solar powered drone is both a monster and a marvel of engineering at the same time. With a wingspan larger than that of a Boeing 737 but half as heavy as a family saloon it’s a monocoque wing made from cured carbon fiber and once airborne it can create a communications cell with a radius of 50 km for up to 90 days, beaming a signal down to small towers and dishes that convert it into a Wi-Fi or LTE network that people can connect to with their cellphones and smartphones.

For the past three years Facebook have been using their Machine Vision systems to analyse over 350 terabytes worth of images covering 22 million square kilometers across all the countries and feeding the information into their Machine Learning platform to create the optimal coverage model for their Aquila drones which once airborne connect with each other using lasers running at tens of Gbps to create a laser communications grid.

 

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Monitored and managed by the same machine learning platform that plotted their optimal trajectories the Aquilas fly at between 60,000 and 90,000 feet far above commercial air traffic and the weather where the air at that altitude is thin, about 5 percent that of sea level and during the day it will fly at 90,000 feet to maximise its ability to charge its solar cells. At night though it will glide down to 60,000 feet taking advantage of gravitational potential energy to consume less power. The communication payload sits in the center of the aircraft, in the fuselage and this has a double benefit, one that today’s conventional communications companies would be wise to think of as disruptive – not only does Facebook not have to dig or lay down any fiber infrastructures but aircraft have the added benefit of allowing the onboard communications technology to be upgraded at whatever rate is required to meet the market needs.

Facebook however are not the only company in the race to connect the rest of the planet but the other companies visions vary – Elon Musk plans on using 4,000 low Earth orbit satellites while Google’s Project Loon is using a global network of hot air balloons.

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