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Future Tech: Sky-Based Internet

You probably have an ok internet connection, but when you compare your internet to something like Google Fiber, you begin to realize how bad it really is.

It's not that your ISP cannot give you better internet, they just do not want to. And while sometimes it seems like we are stuck with the world's worst internet providers, along comes a glimmer of hope in the form of sky-based internet.

Sky-based internet is all about delivering internet from satellites, dirigibles or drones that hover above the earth's surface in the sky.

Both Google and Facebook are attempting to develop air-based technologies that deliver high speed internet down from the skies!

Both companies state that they aim to deliver internet to people in developing countries that do not have access to or cannot afford cable based internet.

Now, this sounds fishy to me. I cannot help but think that as soon as the FAA approves their airships in the US, we will see sky based internet suddenly appear in the US too, which will begin to challenge the ISP monopolies we have in the US.

Whatever their end goal, in this article I want to take a close look at both approaches to sky based internet and muse on their chances of succeeding.

Google’s project is called Project Loon, which they say is “an R&D project with the goal of providing high speed internet access to rural and remote areas.”

Project Loon uses high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 32 kilometers (20 miles) to create an aerial wireless network with 3G speeds.

The balloons are maneuvered in real-time by adjusting their altitude to float on wind layers, or at least the wind layers that provide the right speed and direction. Users of the service will connect to the balloon network using a special antenna.

The signal travels through the network from balloon to balloon, in a network distributed fashion, then onto a ground based station connected to an internet service provider (hopefully not Comcast), then onto the wider internet.

So how far have they got? So far, they successfully launched a “pilot experiment” in New Zealand in coordination with the Civil Aviation Authority. Around thirty balloons were launched from the Tekapo area of the South Island of New Zealand.

It reportedly worked well enough with up to 50 local users connecting at once and accessing the internet over the balloon network.

Facebook on the other hand is taking a different approach to the same problem and instead of using balloons that float on the wind, they have decided to use a solar-powered drone to deliver high speed internet from the sky to their users.

According to the New York Times, the drone “has about the wingspan of a Boeing 767, but weighs less than a small car.” So huge wings, but a very small, light body.

The Facebook internet drone is expected to eventually be aloft for up to three months at a time, beaming high speed internet from 60,000+ feet to some of the world's remotest regions using friggin' laser beams.

But it seems that Facebook is trying to run before it can walk when it comes to sky-based internet. Recently the head of Facebook's drone program, Yael Maguire, admitted that for the drones to work, Facebook would have to “push the edge of solar, battery and composite technology.”

Now, I am as evangelist about new technologies as anyone, but this kind of sounds like they have not gotten it working yet, because the technology that they have available right now is not good enough to meet their needs.

Facebook’s struggles with bleeding edge technology aside, the future of sky-based internet presents LOTS of challenges to anyone attempting to make it work.

If they ever wanted to launch a sky-based internet service in the US, there are significant technical, operational and regulatory hurdles that still need to be overcome for these projects to get off the ground, including overcoming antiquated laws which state that there needs to be one human operator for every drone.

I am still optimistic for the future of sky-based internet. However, the status quo we have with the internet service providers in the US right now is deeply unsatisfying and we as consumers deserve better internet, especially now that we know it's possible after Google led the way with Google Fiber.

Google is clearly involved in sky-based internet for the long run and they recently purchased their own solar powered drone manufacturer, Titan Aerospace, to begin work on their own solar powered drone, capable of delivering sky based internet.

From what I can tell, although sky based internet is not quite around the corner, we will certainly be seeing working implementations in the next couple of years, even if if it's not legal to sell to consumers yet.