SpaceX, Facebook, Virgin Galactic and Google have all announced major initiatives that would help connect the world -- especially developing nations -- to the Internet. But the next thing in worldwide connectivity isn't going to be in underground cables, so much as it will be over your head. It starts with satellites, but it gets a lot weirder.
Back in the nineties, when we first started to understand the promise of this whole "Internet" thing, satellite Internet access represented the promise of the future: High speeds, delivered anywhere, without waiting for your local phone company or cable provider to build out the infrastructure necessary for broadband access. The reality was less glamorous.
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Massive latency issues (a beam has to bounce from space and back, generally not great for your everyday user experience in the age of Netflix) and a generally low quality of service, coupled with the demise of prominent satellite Internet providers in the wake of the dot-com bust, meant that cable and DSL connections thrived while satellite waited for its time to come around again.
Indeed, a few years ago, a new breed of satellite Internet providers started popping up, propelled back to relevancy by advances in satellite technology. Just for example, Eutelsat put KA-SAT in orbit in December 2010, providing broadband to most of Europe with 70Gbps distributed over 80 spot beams. Then when the ViaSat-1 launched in October, 2011, it had 140Gbps of bandwidth, earning it the Guinness record for the world's highest capacity satellite, more than every other satellite covering North America -- combined.
The FCC clearly agrees that satellite broadband has made great strides, and started to include satellite Internet services in its annual broadband reports for the first time ever in 2013. That came with the caveat that these connections are still not great, but getting better and more reliable.
There's a ton of room for providers who want to help people in remote or sparsely-populated areas get online, both at home and abroad, dovetailing nicely with the Obama administration's stated goal of getting more Americans online in service of furthering education and stimulating the economy. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic announced plans to help a venture called OneWeb put up to 2,400 satellites into low-earth orbit, offering broadband access to many thousands in conjunction with local partners.
Google made a serious investment in Elon Musk's private space company SpaceX in January, with the money earmarked to go towards a similar satellite Internet scheme to OneWeb's. But search giant's high-flying Internet ambitions go beyond satellites, or at least below them.
Google's Project Loon is a very low-publicity but ambitious project first announced in 2013 that originally aimed to provide broadband Internet served from balloon relays floating in the stratosphere that would link back to a traditional ISP somewhere along the chain. The project started as a pilot (no pun intended) in rural New Zealand, tested across licensed radio spectrum in Nevada last April, and had another test of its LTE deliverance capabilities in Brazil over the summer.
Meanwhile, Facebook is testing solar-powered drones the size of a commercial airliner that would fly around and act as satellite relays, transmitting Internet service back to earth. The social network is hoping that one human operator could fly 100 drones, and that a drone could fly for five years before needing replacement or repair.
If you're wondering why companies like Google or Facebook would care so much about helping more people at home and abroad get online, well, it depends how optimistic you are. Facebook helms Internet.org, a corporate activism group that campaigns to make broadband more affordable to the world's population with participation from browser developers, smartphone manufacturers, and platform holders. And Google is making headlines with its slow rollout of an affordable Google Fiber crazy-fast ISP. So if you want to believe these megacorps are after the positive ink and the philanthropy, more power to you.
But consider also that Google and especially Facebook have business models that rely heavily on user growth in order to thrive. The more people in more countries who are connected, the more people in more countries signing up for Facebook profiles and looking at Google ads. Moreover, owning the infrastructure would give these companies a lot of leverage when it came to political or business negotiations.