Internet access has gone through several generations that started with dial-up modems. I still remember my “blazing fast” upgrade from 24 kbps to 56 kbps.
Dial-up modems gave way to always-on broadband solutions. Initially there were two choices: Cable (DOCSIS) and telephone (DSL). Wireless (LTE) has emerged over the past few years as a viable option for connectivity beyond smartphones.
Many investors think the next generation will be wireless connectivity. It’s unfortunate that “Skynet” is associated with the villainous, fictional neural machines from the Terminator movies because each of these solutions will deliver the internet from the sky. After all, the sky is where the clouds are.
What’s that up in the sky? A bird? A plane? Or …
Google’s Project Loon intends to deliver high-speed internet service from high-altitude balloons. These are not ordinary balloons. One of them stayed afloat for 187 days while it circled the globe 19 times. The balloons utilize a dual-chamber design with air and helium, enabling altitude adjustments between 55,000 and 75,000 feet in the air. To navigate, the balloon rises or drops into different wind streams. “Navigation” sounds like a stretch, but last year Google managed to keep a Loon balloon over Peru for 98 days. The balloons are equipped with Wi-Fi and LTE to connect individual users to regional carriers.
Last summer, Mark Zuckerberg himself provided an update on what’s known as project Aquila via a blog post. The solar-powered Aquila drone has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737, but the entire vehicle weighs fewer than 1,000 pounds. The plan is to use a fleet of drones that slowly fly (at 80 mph) together at 60,000 feet equipped with advanced laser communications systems. Zuckerberg says the technology can be used to get 4 billion unconnected people online—and at speeds 10 times faster than current systems.
Both Facebook and Google were interested in drone-delivered Internet. Google acquired Titan Aerospace in 2014, and Facebook subsequently acquired Ascenta. However, Google just confirmed it is ending its solar-powered, internet drone research and instead sees Loon as a more promising way to connect rural and remote parts of the world.
There are (at least) four major initiatives to solve global internet access from space.
Iridium is back. In the 1990s, the company, then backed by Motorola, created a global wireless telephone network using 66 low-orbiting satellites. Having overcome many challenges already, Iridium now faces one of the largest tech refreshes in history. SpaceX successfully delivered the first 10 “Iridium Next” satellites last weekend, and the upgrades will continue for the next year and a half. Iridium’s Next network will offer increased capacity for mobile phones and track the world’s planes and ships.
ViaSat currently uses Ka-band technology for broadband connectivity, including JetBlue’s inflight Wi-Fi service. Gizmodo ranks JetBlue’s internet service as the best among airlines, as it provides speeds up to 15 Mbps and supports video streaming. ViaSat is about to launch its next-generation satellite called ViaSat-2, with a 2.5 times capacity increase. But the real story is ViaSat-3, which is planned to utilize three high-capacity satellites, each capable of terabit speeds—more bandwidth than all of the satellites over Earth today combined.
Last month, OneWeb got $1.2 billion in funding for its ambitious plan to use 900 satellites to provide global internet service by 2019. OneWeb anticipates 100 million subscribers by 2025 that include vehicles, homes and schools. It is an unprecedented project in many regards. OneWeb expects to self-produce 15 small satellites a week at a cost of about $600 million each. Project backers include British billionaire Richard Branson and Qualcomm.
Elon Musk has an even more ambitious idea that uses 4,425 low-earth orbit satellites to provide global internet services. Musk says this design can deliver 1 Gbps to users globally with satellites that weigh 850 pounds each, at about 760 miles above the Earth. SpaceX has filed the FCC application. The project is expected to cost $10 billion and is partially funded.
All of these high-altitude projects will be invisible to the naked eye. But not to worry: If they succeed, there will be plenty of things to see on the internet. All of these services are thinking big—and intend to bring the internet to those who are not online today.
Meanwhile, back on Earth
Tremendous progress in unconnected via terrestrial-based systems is also happening. Eyes are on India’s mass-adoption experiment with cellular LTE. Jio, by Reliance Industries, is intended to expand the internet to millions of new users. Backed by billionaire Mukesh Ambani, who believes that a connected country is necessary for national prosperity.
Jio is possibly the lowest cost, commercial broadband service in the world and intends to expand coverage across India. The service launched last quarter as a free service until the end of 2016. This year, it moved to 149 Rupees (less than $3) per month, with data rates of less than $1 per GB—making wireless access low-hanging fruit even for the Earth-bound.
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