On Friday, the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg announced in a report that he envisioned the spread of internet access across the planet through the use of drones, satellites, and laser beams that can carry data across large distances. With the proliferation of information technology, communications companies across the country are already turning this into the next competition for ownership of the skies.
With some 10 to 20 percent of the global population beyond range of wireless networks, people living in desolate areas are now the target demographic for expanding internet coverage. One possibility that Zuckerberg is researching is called “free space optical communication,” or FSO, which is a process of using the infrared spectrum for transmitting data through laser beams, and according to Facebook its speed is equivalent to fiber-optics. The drawbacks of this technology include the issue of line-of-sight visibility that will not work in bad weather, as well as the precision necessary to accurately connect two points, which has been labeled as difficult as focusing a laser beam on a dime from 10 miles away.
To overcome these challenges, Facebook is hiring experts in FSO and will be expanding their team with technicians from Ascenta, a British-based company that was responsible for engineering tasks for a solar-powered unmanned aircraft called the Zephyr. The potential for using drones to spread the internet is another aspect of Zuckerberg’s focus, allowing the machines to glide 65,000 feet high while broadcasting communications signals. These could conceivably stay aloft for years at a time, fueled entirely by the sun, and could cover the populations of mid-sized cities.
While Zuckerberg reported that Facebook is in the process of manufacturing their first drones for areas with small populations such as deserts they are considering launching satellites 100 miles high, or into geosynchronous orbit around the earth about 20,000 miles above sea level. According to their calculations, the satellites would be weak, providing limited access to a small number of people, unless their FSO laser technology helps.
Facebook has already made significant strides in spreading the reach of the internet into areas that were previously bereft. Their plans to build mesh networks are thought to be the solution for urban populations, but so far Zuckerberg has worked with foreign countries in a project that he is calling Internet.org with attempts to push free data access to regions of intense poverty. In the Philippines, he has worked with local operators to expand their subscribers by 25 percent, doubling the number of people previously using mobile plans. In Paraguay, they achieved the same result, helping the population with access to the internet grow by 50 percent. Through the two attempts to open the market to Facebook, they have managed to put another three million people on the internet.
Along with access to the popular social media website, which is clearly Zuckerberg’s primary goal, the unintended spread of information access will also connect the populations of these poor countries and allow for more efficient distribution of health care and financial services, as well as strengthening the job market. The investment into drones, satellites, and laser technology for the company could eventually cost into the hundreds of millions, and during the battle for regulatory issues concerning ownership of the sky itself, a new competition for multinational conglomerates is about to launch.
By Elijah Stephens