It sounds like another step toward the world depicted in science fiction, where communication is available anywhere, anytime. And Facebook may be the ones to pull off the technology of global internet connectivity, through the use of satellites, flying drones, and infrared lasers.
Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to see the whole world connected to the Internet, including the two-thirds of the planet that currently has no access. To accomplish this goal, Facebook is working on technology that could reduce the cost of connectivity in remote areas of the globe.
Last year Facebook announced the creation of Internet.org, a coalition of the world’s foremost technology companies who are working together with the goal of increasing global access to the Internet. On Thursday Zuckerberg revealed the Facebook Connectivity Lab, a new department within Internet.org that includes up to 50 space scientists and aeronautics experts, including aerospace engineers, and researchers from NASA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
Satellites can currently deliver the Internet to isolated parts of the world, but at a very high cost. Facebook is exploring whether access could be delivered more cheaply through technology such as unmanned aircraft and satellites. They are prioritizing reaching the 10 percent of the world’s population that are in areas where traditional Internet access is difficult.
Internet.org says they have been working on high altitude, solar-powered, long endurance aircraft for suburban areas. These aircraft would be able to stay aloft for months, be quickly launched, and deliver dependable Internet connections. For less populated areas, geosynchronous and low-orbit satellites would beam Internet access to the ground. In both cases, infrared laser beams would be used to transmit the data through space.
Zuckerberg’s purpose is not just to get more people on Facebook. Humanitarian organizations are encouraging better technology and access in the world’s poorest areas, to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian aid efforts. Facebook thinks satellites, drones and lasers may be able to accomplish this through the Internet.
Connection to the Internet also encourages freedom of speech, among other benefits. In 2011, the United Nations even declared internet access a basic human right.
Facebook is also buying the British company Ascenta, whose engineers helped create the world’s longest-flying unmanned aircraft, the Zephyr. The solar-powered Zephyr flew for two weeks in July 2010, breaking the world record for time in flight.
The Connectivity Lab is looking at the possibility of drones that stay in the air for months, and beam Internet from the sky. They are looking at satellites for more rural areas, and infrared laser beams to make faster long distance connections.
Google is working on a similar project. Their Project Loon wants to use high-altitude balloons to deliver the Internet to remote places. These balloons would float twice as high as airplanes and weather. Antennas attached to buildings would allow connection to the balloon network.
This is the second major technology announcement this week from Facebook, and the third this year. Tuesday they announced that they were purchasing Oculus VR, the start-up company that is developing virtual reality headsets. And last month they announced the purchase of WhatsApp, a messaging application that offers free texting worldwide.
Satellites, drones, lasers and Facebook, combining to bring Internet to the world. Science fiction may soon be reality.
By Beth A. Balen