The race for worldwide connection brings probable victor into view
Access to knowledge and information in modern society has become just as important as access to clean water. It also has the potential to drastically improve living conditions.
According to a study released by the International Telecommunications Union, only 2.7 billion people — just more than one-third of the world’s population — have access to the Internet. One-third of the world doesn’t have access to basic free resources.
An analysis by McKinsey, a global management consulting firm, has shown that the Internet now accounts for a larger percent of GDP than agriculture and energy in many developed countries. It has also accounted for 21 percent of GDP growth in developed countries in the past five years, a dramatic increase from just 10 percent in the past 15 years.
Because of that, three major players are currently pioneering global internet access efforts: Facebook, Google and Outernet.
In August 2013, Facebook, with partners Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, announced the founding of Internet.org. Internet.org focuses on three major challenges: affordability, data efficiency and innovative and sustainable business models.
According to a February press release, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged at the Mobile World Congress that the implementation of global Internet access would be costly to Facebook without any profit in the distant future. However, he’s hopeful that technologies will be developed and implemented that will decrease the cost of delivering data.
Facebook and its partners are also looking into developing sustainable new business models and services that would make it easier for people to access the Internet all around the world.
Just this month, it was released that Facebook was in negotiations to acquire the drone-manufacturing company Titan Aerospace. Titan’s drones are designed like solar-powered airplanes and can stay in the atmosphere for as long as five years, functioning like cheap satellites.
The satellites would provide wireless Internet signals over a large range, although the signals would be slower and unable to handle as much data as land-based Internet connections. However, it would provide at least rudimentary access through mobile phones even in remote places.
In June 2013, Google launched Project Loon at google.com/loon, named for the network of high-altitude balloons that will serve as satellites. Google claims the balloons can travel by wind streams, can coordinate with other balloons to provide stable coverage on the ground and are entirely solar-powered.
Project Loon uses software algorithms to determine where the balloons go and then moves each one into the appropriate wind stream. By using wind streams as navigation, the balloons can be arranged to form a communications network.
A special antenna is needed in order for an establishment to receive signals from the balloons. Google did not disclose whether it will provide the antennas for free or by purchase.
Google claims the balloons are easy to control and can be reused and recycled, but the uncertainty of weather conditions and vulnerability of the balloons themselves could easily bring down the balloon network.
In addition, the balloons’ current design enables them to last for only 100 days — much more short-term than the satellites Facebook intends to put up.
Then, in December 2013, Outernet also took on the challenge of creating a more connected world.
Its plan is to put low-cost, miniature satellites into orbit through a process called rideshare. Through ridesharing, companies can pay to send data up with a previously orbiting satellite.
As of now, Outernet is focused on broadcasting data, similar to how television and radio broadcast data. If this is successful on a global scale, for the first time, an additional four billion people will be able to receive, download and store data on any Wi-Fi enabled device.
Currently, Outernet plans only to broadcast data but hopes to also receive data from users globally in the long term. Its plans for the near future are to develop satellite prototypes in June 2014 and have them launched in June 2015.
The primary objective of all three of these companies is to bridge the existing global information divide. However, Facebook and Outernet are the most viable options.
Providing Internet access on a global scale requires the work of more than just one company, which is something Facebook was quick to realize and adopt.
Out of the two, Facebook also has the means and the infrastructure to provide global Internet access.
In an age when being the first means everything, Facebook has the edge, being a familiar brand and having already put Internet.org in motion.
Opinion columnist Julie Nguyen is a communications junior and may be reached at [email protected]