The Race to Connect the World

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In the developed world we tend to believe that the entire planet is connected to the Internet but the troubling reality is that only about a third of the world is currently online. Tech companies have long been aware of this severe limitation to their potential market size, and in the past two years, three initiatives have been announced that try to tackle the problem of global connectivity. The first was Google’s Project Loon, the second was Facebook’s Connectivity Lab which is building solar powered drones, and third, not to be outdone, Elon Musk announced earlier this month that SpaceX, in partnership with WorldVu Satellites Ltd, would enter the fray with a fleet of Internet satellites.


Loon is the most developed of the three projects and uses clusters of balloons in the stratosphere, which bounce signals between each other to dramatically increase the range of a signal. Facebook  is improving a data transfer method called free-space optical technology (FSO) for its drones, which uses lasers that offer speeds comparable to fibre optics. The technology is being built in-house by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab and is part of a larger initiative called Internet.org, which, although it sounds like a non-profit, is not.


SpaceX is planning on using satellites instead of high flying aircrafts or balloons, and is expected to make a full announcement in the next two to three months. The project would require roughly 700 satellites, 10 times the size of the current largest fleet.


Connecting the remaining two thirds of the world is undoubtedly a noble goal. Connectivity can help improve education, bolster economies, expand health care access and knowledge, generate higher crop yields, facilitate more effective communication and organization, as well as enable a host of other important, and in some cases rudimentary freedoms. As one might expect, the rhetoric from Facebook and Google expounds the virtues of a connected world. Mark Zuckerberg has asserted that access to the Internet could potentially solve some of the world’s toughest problems, including access to health care and overthrowing oppressive regimes.


As I explained when we looked into Tor, the Internet can, and has, helped facilitate dramatic change, but it is important to examine this type of altruistic speak with a critical eye.


Google, Facebook, and SpaceX all have deep vested interests in developing these programs. Both Facebook and Google stand to gain billions of users, which would drive ad revenue and increase both companies’ already massive store of personal data.


These networks will be worth billions of dollars and, because providing Internet from the air is already significantly less expensive than ground service and will be done on a previously unprecedented scale, they will be able to offer it at a greatly reduced price. With connection speeds that run as fast as a gigabit per second, Google, Facebook and/or SpaceX could end up supplanting existing ISPs.


Facebook, showing an uncanny level of clairvoyance, has been preparing for a connected developed world for years. Starting in 2010, the tech giant has spearheaded a number of initiatives that have made their service ubiquitous in the developing world. They have managed to do this in places where access to smartphones is limited if existent at all, by building versions of the app that run on almost any phone, including feature and basic phones. This has meant that in many places (including the Philippines and large parts of Africa) Facebook is the only app that users are familiar with when they get access to a smartphone. By connecting the rest of the world, Facebook will ensure that they become the default social network for these expanding markets.


For SpaceX, bringing connectivity to the developing world represents a slightly less glamorous product diversification opportunity. Currently, their revenue comes from government contracts and, more recently, satellite launching systems. The company’s entry into the satellite building industry gives them another revenue stream and could potentially lead to further varied business activity should the satellites be a success.


The remaining two thirds of the world likely won’t be online any time soon. All three projects still have significant technical hurdles to overcome including adapting technologies to deal with adverse weather conditions, maintaining reliable connections, and overcoming technical issues that arise from a network consisting of fast-moving targets.
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