A month ago, Facebook announced that it was developing its own drone-based plan for global Internet coverage, to compete against the likes of Google's balloon-based Project Loon. Last Friday, Zuckerberg unveiled a more detailed paper on that proposal, discussing why the company believes that drones are a better technology than balloons, what it hopes to accomplish, and where it believes the market will go in the future.
Like Project Loon, Dronebook (not an actual product name) is designed to solve the problem of limited internet access across the globe. The existing map of Internet coverage is shown in the image below.
If you're in the business of getting people online and into your own service network, this image throws up something of a problem. Two-thirds of the world's population remains off the grid and the challenges of wiring these spaces are enormous.
Thanks to low population densities, impoverished citizens, challenging terrain, or significant levels of sociopolitical unrest, there are many areas of the world without a realistic plan for deploying Internet access in the near future.
Facebook wants to change that, and it's betting that drones can do a better job. The key arguments from Zuckerberg's whitepaper are:
- Solar-powered drones can remain in the air for much longer periods than their balloon counterparts.
- Unlike balloons, which drift on the wind with limited controls, drones can remain directly over a specific city or area.
- Unlike balloons, drones can be easily serviced and returned to flight.
In most other respects, Project Loon and FB's drone project are similar. They target the same atmospheric height and they try to solve the same problem – tossing cheap, regional slices of Internet access down from the heavens rather than relying on vastly more expensive satellites to do the trick.
Of profits and censorship
There are two major flaws that neither Google nor Facebook have addressed to date and they've got nothing to do with the blue sky research either company is conducting. First, there's the very real question of how the telecommunications industry is likely to react to the widespread deployment of either technology. Right now, the likes of AT&T, Time Warner, and Comcast don't care much about satellite providers because satellite Internet is a miserable experience that no one in their right mind would ever purchase. With a round-trip latency of 1000-1500ms and sharp restrictions on monthly bandwidth, satellite Internet is the Internet of last resort – and the big cable companies and telcos know it. Proposed systems that would substantially reduce the massive latency of satellite Internet access remain untested.
A Google balloon or Facebook drone capable of throwing Wi-Fi signals across an entire city or town is exactly the kind of threat that these companies wouldn't take kindly to – particularly if Facebook or Google provided the service for free or at a sharply reduced rate. Expect a serious fight on this front if Google or Facebook moves towards making these projects a reality; high altitude Wi-Fi would undercut the entire business model cellular networks depend on, and these companies do not play fair when it comes to writing laws that favour their own solutions at the expense of everyone else.
The second significant challenge to the idea of aerial Internet is that there are plenty of governments in the world with zero interest in allowing unrestricted access to the Internet – including many of the areas that most need the kind of projects Google and Facebook are proposing. Even governments that don't explicitly keep citizens in the dark as part of a general policy of non-communication, like North Korea, aren't likely to be thrilled with Google and Facebook beaming uncensored Internet linkages to their cities from the skies. Bringing this technology to remote parts of the world is going to mean playing by the rules of nations that aren't necessarily friendly to the unrestricted flow of information.
Finally, as we've discussed before, these projects aren't philanthropic endeavours – at least, not entirely. No matter how noble the aims of both Google and Facebook, a big part of this effort is aimed at getting people online and into their own service networks. If both companies push ahead with their respective plans, it could open up an entire new vista of televised network entertainment: Balloons versus Drones – Aerial Combat at 60,000 Feet.