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Can Drones Be Used To Bring Internet Across The World?

With Facebook and Google both trying to provide worldwide coverage, what does it mean?

12Aug

There are a variety of different estimates as to the proportion of the world’s population that lack internet access. According to US consulting firm McKinsey and Company, it is over 4 billion people, while Facebook believe it to be somewhere between 1.1 billion and 2.8 billion. According to the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union, meanwhile, 43.4% of the world’s population doesn’t use the Internet.

Whatever the exact figure, the ramifications for those billions of people are potentially huge. Last year, the World Economic Forum issued a report which argued that while hyper-connectivity may bring with it a number of benefits, it also exacerbates inequality for the huge numbers that have either limited or no access. The internet brings to the poor the knowledge with which they can better their situation, and enables them to connect with the people that can help make it happen. Those that have it can access resources that cannot be accessed by those that don’t, taking away from people simply because they are not connected.

Bringing internet access to all corners of the globe has become a pet project for some of the world’s biggest tech firms. Two of the main drivers behind it are Google’s Project Loon, and Facebook’s Internet.org. Both schemes envision an air-borne all wireless network, with Project Loon looking to high-altitude balloons, and Facebook attempting to utilize drones to solve the issue.

Facebook is now making real progress too. Late last month, it revealed its first full-scale drone, code-named ‘Aquila’. Aquila is a solar-powered drone with a wingspan of 46 yards (42m) - the same as a Boeing 747. It will fly at 60,000 to 90,000 feet, and can do so without landing for up to 90 days at a time, using a laser to beam data to a base station on the ground. Facebook is testing its laser system in California at the moment. It claims that its prototype can deliver 10 gigabits of data a second, much faster than what’s considered state-of-the-art in the industry.

Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice-president of engineering, said of the project: ‘Our mission is to connect everybody in the world. This is going to be a great opportunity for us to motivate the industry to move faster on this technology.’

Bringing connectivity to the poor has the added benefit of providing these companies with more revenue streams, although it seems churlish to criticize a company for having ulterior motives when the outcome can result in so much good. Although, there is some debate as to whether or not simply bringing connectivity to the masses is enough to bring the poor into the digital fold, and how much it can do without the proper training as to how to use it. Controversy has also arisen around Facebook’s Internet.org, with the Indian government particularly suggesting that the limited range of sites available - which excludes Google, and India’s largest recruiter in favour of a far smaller job site - are preventing social mobility. However, the benefits afforded are inarguably better than no web access, and it can only be hoped that the training and provisions are put in place to make sure that it is fully optimized, and can fulfil its promise as a real tool for ending poverty.

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