A truly global web would a big leap for mankind and a giant one for Google. A total of 180 satellites hovering above the surface of the Earth, providing broadband internet connections for the entire planet. Billions could access the internet for the first time and that would only bring more revenue and higher earnings to the Mountain View, CA behemoth.
A full two-thirds of Earth – 4.8 billion people – remain without internet access. Multiply that number by two and that is how many eyeballs are not currently viewing its advertising. Yet even 180 low-altitude satellites are not enough to provide truly global broadband coverage. Any holes will purportedly be filled with some combination of high altitude balloons and solar-powered drones, currently under development as part of Google’s Project Loon. The 49-foot diameter balloons would be filled with helium and carry 3G-speed transponders to beam and receive internet signals into and out of remote regions. The same development team that created the driverless car and Google Glass – Google’s X Lab – is behind Project Loon.
When operational, the project will assist developing countries in avoiding the cost and time of installing fiber optic cables. Universal coverage would result in dramatic increases in internet access in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Further toward this end of a global web, Google purchased drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace in April. Drone technology, like high-altitude balloons, also hold promise of filling in coverage areas where satellites fail.
Facebook is thinking along the same lines. It recently purchased Ascenta, another drone maker, to assist with its mission to make “Internet access available to the next 5 billion people.” Solar-powered drones, satellites and lasers are all being developed in the firm’s labs to deliver the internet to underdeveloped countries. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has pledged to deliver the internet to “the other 3 billion people.”
Google will reportedly spend between $1 billion and $3 billion on the satellite project. To make this budget workable, the weight of each satellite will need to drop drastically from the current standard of 1,500 pounds. Google has backed aerospace startup O3b Networks for this purpose, a company who saw its first four satellites put aloft a year ago by a Russian-built Soyuz rocket. Google is reportedly shooting for satellites weighing in at an extremely slim 250 pounds and engineers are reportedly being hired to work on the project from satellite builder Space Systems / Loral. Tim Farrar, founder of satellite consulting firm TMF Associates, said that telecommunications satellites that small would be a “radical advance.” The overall project is being led by the founder of O3b Networks, Greg Wyler.
One technology that could save weight and cost are flat-panel antennas, which can track satellites without moving parts. Compared to the tens of thousands of dollars in previous systems, the cost of a flat-panel antenna is merely in the hundreds.
Throughout their growth, both Facebook and Google have fought accusations from privacy advocates, and concerns are now being expressed about how drones could collect data about people. As well, drones could access wireless networks and take aerial images of untold resolution.
Current regulations will need to be dealt with before Google’s or Facebook’s global web can be made into reality. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. has guidelines stating that private concerns are only allowed to fly drones “recreationally” while the commercial uses of drones are “prohibited.”
By Gregory Baskin