Casting the net wider

The global internet experience is set for major disruption. Several giants are developing unconventional technologies to provide high-speed internet from the air. Each of them has a different idea and all of them must solve daunting engineering problems and scale up.

Alphabet’s Project Loon will set up a “floating” wireless network using balloons. Facebook’s Project Aquila is designing high-altitude long endurance (HALE) aircraft for the same task. India’s aerospace and space exploration boutique, TeamIndus, also has a Hale project on the table.

There could be a huge expansion in satellite-based net services. Elon Musk’s SpaceX wants to put a massive satellite network together. So does Boeing. Virgin and Qualcomm are also collaborating at building a satellite network. 

Close to half the world’s population is not on the net yet. The International Telecommunication Union estimated that just 25 per cent of Africa residents were net users circa June 2016, while only about 42 per cent of people in the Asia-Pacific region were users. Arab states also had less than 50 per cent net penetration. 

Broadband usage, including mobile broadband is even lower, with many users accessing the net via 2G.

Affordability can impede usage in many low-income places. Geographical difficulties can also make it hard to provide net access. Governments in nations like North Korea and Myanmar have placed restrictions on access. Net services are routinely suspended in Manipur, Kashmir, Haryana, Chhattisgarh etc. and in countries such as Turkey and Pakistan. 

Loon conceptualises high-altitude balloons delivering net access. The project claims to have flown 19 million km of test flights and it can launch a balloon every 30 minutes. The balloons are airborne cell “towers”, each about the size of a tennis court, with ultra-light equipment. These solar-powered balloons can stay up for 100-plus days before coming down in controlled descents — the record is 190 days. Loon claims to have figured out how to ride the high-speed winds of the thin upper atmosphere to guide these balloons where needed, to cluster them, and keep them in the same place. 

High speed data is transmitted to the nearest balloon from a telecom service partner on the ground. The signal is relayed across the balloon network and back down to users, using normal ground-based cell-towers. In demonstrations, Loon claims it has hit end-to-end data transmission at speeds of up to 10 Mbps to ground-based mobile phones via balloons, which were all floating 20 kms up, and over 100 km apart. 

In Peru this year, a pilot project cooperated with local service provider, Telefonica, to tackle net outages caused by flooding. A network of 30 balloons covered 40,000 square km and transmitted 160 GB data. Loon hopes to be commercially up and running by 2019 and it aims to be profitable. 

Facebook's Aquila is going to use drones with huge wingspans to deliver services. The solar-powered planes will have 35 metre wingspans while weighing less than 400 kg. They will cruise for three months at a time, at altitudes of up to 60 km.  The planes will fly slowly in circles of about 50 km radius, using lasers to connect to ground cell networks. Aquila has gone through several rounds of test flights.

SpaceX wants to set up a network of 4,000 satellites, orbiting 1,200 km above the Earth to provide hyper-speed transmissions at 1 gigabyte per second (1 GB = 1,024 megabyte). The rollout is planned for 2019 -24 with tests scheduled to start by end-2017. But regulators have expressed worries that this will interfere with current systems. Boeing also wants to put about 3,000 satellites into orbit with a similar gameplan. Virgin also intends to use satellites to deliver services, with Qualcomm as a partner. 

These concepts could stretch current spectrum usage policy and licensing regulations to the limit and well beyond. Regimes fixated on censorship and surveillance will also be nervous about hard-to-interdict net access suddenly becoming available. There could also be sundry military applications of the new technologies that go beyond communications and mapping. For example, a HALE could deliver laser attacks, or mount target radar for artillery and missiles. 

Therefore, the new entrants will face many technical and regulatory barriers. However, these are also giant multinationals, which are well-versed at influencing policy-makers. Between them, if they deliver fast, affordable net access to underserved regions, it could be a game changer for global growth.