SciTech

Paul Gilster: Facebook’s data-beaming technology has serious potential

“Watch the skies. Everywhere!” So says reporter Ned Scott at the end of Howard Hawks’ “The Thing from Another World,” a classic that not only uncovers a flying saucer in the Arctic in the early 1950s but features James Arness in his first screen role (as an alien who is part vegetable!). “The mind boggles,” as Scott says earlier in the film, and so does my mind at the way Internet access is now taking to the skies, even without talented scriptwriters.

Consider Facebook. Long-time readers know that I regularly disparage the service because of its lax attitude toward personal information and its constantly changing privacy policies. But CEO Mark Zuckerberg is doing something in the much discussed Aquila project with serious potential for good. Aquila is a drone, but not the kind that flits around neighborhoods taking photos of unsuspecting sunbathers.

It’s also big. Very big. In fact, Aquila is about as big as the flying saucer in “The Thing from Another World.” The one full-scale prototype that has been built so far is shaped like a V, a layered carbon-fiber construct whose wingspan is about that of a Boeing 737. In terms of staying power, Aquila is designed to keep itself at altitudes up to 90,000 feet for months at a time. Flying well above commercial jetways, the drone stays aloft through solar power.

Ad-free service

Zuckerberg is thinking of Aquila as the basis for an Internet network in the heavens, with data transmitted by lasers at rates in the tens of gigabits per second. Facebook’s Internet.org, launched in 2013, was originally set up to offer Internet options where they’re scarce. The plan is to offer at least a basic Internet connection, at no charge, that will let users access network destinations we’ve come to rely upon, among which, of course, is Facebook itself.

We only have one full-sized Aquila right now, but their numbers will grow if the hardware checks out. The network would involve signals transmitted from the ground and then from drone to drone, so the coverage area can be wide. You wouldn’t think this would be controversial, but there’s a catch: Internet.org has gotten into trouble in places like India, where it has been pushing its content-limited, ground-based services. Is limiting the Internet actually against the spirit of net neutrality?

Perhaps, though the issue is still being debated and Facebook’s plans remain fluid. At any rate, I much approve of an ad-free service that offers even basic Internet connectivity for free, and Internet.org is talking about partnering with developers who want to be included in coverage. Zuckerberg counts 4 billion people without Net options of any kind, and an argument can be made that a limited free version of the Net, while not as useful as unfettered access, is at least a start. We’ll be kicking these issues around as Aquila gets flight-checked and designs for the network are tested and modified.

Other options

This won’t be the last time we have this debate, of course, because Facebook is hardly the only player in the aerial Internet sweepstakes. Commercial space firms like SpaceX, the offspring of PayPal founder Elon Musk, are talking about satellite access, beaming the Net from low-Earth orbit. Google is investigating balloons as a way of providing WiFi access. We’ll see what kind of Net options these services provide, and how the model scales vs. what Facebook is doing.

Watch the skies indeed. Carbon-fiber keeps the enormous Aquila lightweight, and judicious altitude changes can bring it lower at night, higher during the day to maximize solar power usage. If the drone can demonstrate a flight time of several months, possibly this year, we’ll find out how good Facebook’s data-beaming technology really is, and learn whether there are parts of the planet that can remain unconnected even though they lack basic infrastructure.

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

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