Facebook drones and Google balloons are bringing cloud wars for internet traffic to the world’s airspace. The rival media giants are each working on plans for a wireless internet hosted on airborne platforms. The grand prize will be a significant chunk of the world’s internet traffic. Google’s balloons have already aced a successful beta test in New Zealand, but Facebook’s drones may turn out to be the better technology.
Existing domestic cable and satellite systems are reaching a saturation point where they will no longer be able to handle their internet traffic. The world needs more bandwidth to cope with the exponential growth of the current internet users, but existing cable and satellite systems cannot grow their current capacities without huge capital and infrastructure investments.That’s why Google and Facebook are thinking about getting into the data transmission business here in the U.S. They believe that they can provide a more cost-effective alternative to existing hardwired cable systems without going to the astronomical expense of putting satellites into geostationary Earth orbits.
The media giants want a piece of the cable traffic that belongs to companies like Comcast ,Verizon, Dish and Direct TV…but the real prize may be 2.8 billion people in Africa and Asia (read: new customers) who do not have access to the internet because they live in areas that don’t have any cable service, leaving them stuck with dial-up
Wireless systems are slower, smaller and weaker than hardwired systems…but wireless systems can grow quickly, scaling up to meet to the service demands from the market. They are also cheaper to build and cheaper to operate, but you have to put them up in the sky to get the maximum amount of coverage from the transceivers…and that’s where the rival airborne internet platforms come into the picture….to provide a mechanism for hosting an airborne network.
Google is experimenting with high-altitude, helium-filled weather balloons to carry wireless transceivers up to the edge of the troposphere at around 50,000 feet. Google’s Project Loon, launched in 2013, is using 35 high-altitude balloons equipped with microwave transceivers to provide high quality internet reception for the residents of Canterbury, New Zealand who have the Project Loon uplinks.
The system works and Google is now expanding the program to the United States. The big drawback to the system is that balloons go wherever the wind blows them, Google engineers control the flights of their weather balloons by increasing or decreasing the altitudes at which the balloons are flying to catch the prevailing winds at different altitudes. They do this by pumping helium in and out of storage bottles to adjust the altitude of the balloon, but it takes time to get the balloons back on station when they get blown off their marks.
Not be outdone by his arch rival, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is buying Titan Aerospace for $60 million in order to build his own air force, a fleet of ultra lightweight solar-powered drones that are capable of lifting a 250 lb payload more than 25,000 feet, remaining aloft for five years or more. Running off solar panels by day and batteries by night, the drones – unlike weather balloons – are highly maneuverable and very stable platforms capable of putting wireless networks wherever they are needed.
Like any good entrepreneur, Zuckerberg doesn’t just want to buy some drones. He wants to own the company. Paying $60 million for the Titan Aerospace will ensure that no one is going to be able to buy those drones to go into competition with him. It also makes it easier to get replacements.
Both the Facebook drones and the Google balloons will need a mechanism to enable them to transfer their cable traffic to the backbone of the internet. In other words, they have get down off their clouds. That is why both companies are “interested” in New York’s Media Development Investment Group, which is planning to loft tiny satellites called “CubeSats” into geostatic orbits to provide internet connections for high-flying drones like Facebook’s Titan aircraft or Google’s balloons. CubesSats might also be a competitor for the airborne internet market, making them an interesting takeover target for either Google or Facebook.
But Google may be going Facebook drones one better. On February 11, 2014, they signed a lease with NASA taking over the Moffett Federal Airfield, and Hangar One, one of the largest freestanding buildings in the world, in an unincorporated area between Google headquarters in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, California.
Moffett is used by both civilian and military aircraft, and the lease might simply reflect Google’s desire to park its fleet of airplanes closer to the office…or they may want Moffett because it is one of a very few airfields in the United States capable of servicing blimps and…blimps may be Google’s next step into the Cloud Wars.
Blimps are making a serious comeback in the minds of military logistics experts and civilian transportation companies. They have tremendous lifting power, with the VariaLift airship being rated to lift 500 metric tonnes of equipment. They are virtually silent, don’t use much gas…and they are safe. In fact, they are much safer than fixed wing aircraft or helicopters…as long as you fill them with inert helium rather than highly explosive hydrogen.
A few strategically placed Google zeppelins around the world could, in fact, bring airborne internet services to area that have never been touched by the internet. The zeppelins could also be used to support larger switches with uplinks to satellites and downlinks to Earth stations to open up a great deal more bandwidth when needed and where needed.
When these storm clouds clear up, consumers may find both Facebook drones and Google balloons overhead, vying to carry their internet traffic, and that could be a win-win situation for everyone. Spreading the world’s internet traffic among a larger number of carriers may improve service for everyone, and more carriers could also mean lower costs for consumer.
By Alan M. Milner