The Facebook Connectivity Lab is working on a system to provide Internet access from high-flying solar-powered planes or LEO satellites to areas so far unconnected, thus seemingly following in the footsteps of Google’s Project Loon.
Over the past year, Facebook’s work with partner operators in the Philippines and Paraguay has doubled the number of subscribers using mobile data there, helping three million extra people to access the Internet. Under the umbrella of Internet.org, a partnership between Facebook and Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, and Samsung, the social network colossus is focusing efforts on enabling everyone in the world to access basic Internet services. Now Facebook has just launched a new research laboratory to harness aerospace and communication technologies for this purpose. Called the Facebook Connectivity Lab, it employs some of the world’s top experts, including researchers from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the NASA Ames Research Center. Meanwhile on 27 March Facebook purchased for $20 million UK-based Ascenta, the company which has created the world’s longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft. Two days later, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the Connectivity Lab project to develop an unmanned aircraft that will remain airborne for months at a time and beam WiFi to the areas it flies over.
Providing better connectivity from close to earth
The idea is to use Ascenta’s solar-powered Zephyr aircraft to fly over suburban areas at an altitude of 20 kilometers, above the height where commercial airlines fly. The Zephyr can stay in the air for several months at a time and the necessary facilities could be set up quite quickly in emerging regions of the world. The drones are able to transmit a highly reliable 3G Internet connection. For places where the population is spread more thinly, the Connectivity Lab team is planning to use low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. In both cases the idea is to beam the data to the ground using free-space optical (FSO)communication, which basically means infrared laser beams.
Shadowing Google’s Project Loon?
This latest Facebook project is similar in many ways to Google’s Project Loon, which uses solar-powered balloons flying in the stratosphere to broadcast Internet connections. Google’s balloons and Facebook’s planes would create a mesh network of Internet connections at the same altitude. Both companies are planning to put their craft at an height far above the weather and commercial air traffic, but neither has explained how their balloons and planes will detect and avoid one another. Meanwhile the two Internet giants are going for different means of transmitting data to earth: while Facebook is planning to use FSO,Google’s project is geared to radio transmission. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Larry Page reckon that the future of universal Internet access lies in the high stratosphere. However David Talbot of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review points out that if the two companies really wish to expand Internet access they will first have to deal not only with competition issues and difficulties linked to using the stratosphere, but also an array of local political and economic issues on the ground that are impeding the spread of Internet connectivity in the developing world today.