Computers

Gilster: Look to the skies for next innovation in Internet access

CorrespondentMarch 16, 2014 

Technology is always mutating, and as the Internet plays an increasing role in all our lives, we can expect new options for how we connect. And about time. Internet speeds in places like South Korea and Japan are considerably faster than those we experience, and the prices per month are lower. Meanwhile, much of the world deals with even slower – or completely non-existent – Net access, complicated in some cases by repressive governments.

What to do? Look to the skies, in at least several new projects. The “Outernet” comes to us from an organization called Media Development Investment Fund, which hopes to create a satellite-based network that can defy all attempts at censorship and overcome problems of geography. The enabling technology in this case is the “cubesat,” a mini orbiter not so much bigger than a loaf of bread. Cubesats may be tiny, but put enough of them into low Earth orbit and you can serve the 60 percent of the world’s population with little or no Net access.

Project Loon

Don’t get too carried away by the idea just yet, though. Assuming the Outernet project starts launching satellites next year (you can track it at www.outernet.is), it’s still only going to be delivering one-way access, at least for starters. The Outernet’s orbiters would stream Web content to Earth, beginning with a limited set of websites transmitted to the satellites by ground stations. Two-way communication is planned for the future, but that could take years. The next step: Testing the Outernet’s datacasting technologies on the International Space Station.

Much better funded, presumably, is Google’s Project Loon. Relying on high-altitude balloons operating as a world-spanning fleet in the upper atmosphere, Google’s system is undergoing testing in New Zealand as well as the United States, the advantage being that balloons are much cheaper to put into operation than satellites, even if thousands will be needed. One good thing about satellites, of course, is that you know where they are, which is not always the case when high-altitude winds take hold of a balloon, not to mention dispersing a fleet of them. Google is working on software algorithms that can handle needed altitude changes to compensate.

Google can also offer the possibility of two-way access at 3G speeds on a much faster time-frame than the Outernet, presuming the company decides to go through with the project. Each balloon would serve a ground area about 40 kilometers in diameter. As the pilot program expands this year, we can ponder the consequences of an aerial Internet that not only gets remote areas connected but offers continuous service in times of natural disasters.

Facebook and drones

Finally, bear in mind that Facebook is said to be in the process of buying a company called Titan Aerospace, which makes drones. Imagine thousands of drones operating at altitudes well above commercial airways, providing the same advantages of access while making a determined bid to compete against Google’s balloons. The remarkable thing about the drones in question is that because they are solar-powered, they can fly for years at a time, and unlike the balloon scenario, they have the onboard power to be navigated easily through changing conditions.

I can only imagine the disdain the big Internet providers will heap upon ventures like these, pointing to their difficulties in implementation and their initially slower access speeds. But those parts of the world that are poorly served or dealing with actual censorship of existing services would find 3G or even broadcast Web access an empowering proposition. Moreover, the experimentation we are seeing here is going to lead to a host of options for all of us down the road as we look beyond current monopolies and begin to see Internet access as something like dial tone, an indispensable driver for business and a key element in protecting liberty.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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