By Seth Fitzgerald / CIO Today. Updated June 02, 2014.
Search giant Google has been working on Internet expansion technologies for at least a few years and its latest project could involve spending $1 billion on 180 satellites, according to the Wall Street Journal. Just like the balloons in Google's Project Loon, the satellites would be used to extend Internet access to large groups of people in remote areas. Details on the new project are slim but the satellites are likely an extension of Project Loon.
Project Loon has been one of the only Internet expansion projects that has been developed publicly, though it is suspected that other companies, including Facebook, are working on similar projects. There is a lot of money to be made in connecting what could be billions of people, but competing with local providers or discouraging the creation of local providers could negatively effect the industry.
Satellites, Drones, Balloons
The Journal report is just the latest in a string of rumors and confirmed projects all stemming from Google's interest in connecting people around the world to the Internet and its services. At first, the company was primarily interested in using balloons but with the acquisition of drone maker Titan Aerospace, it has seemed more likely that Google would use drones rather than balloons. If this report is accurate, there are now three ways that Google can connect people and it is not clear if the company plans to utilize all of them or just one.
Facebook has reportedly started work on a Internet expansion program that uses drones as well. But Titan Aerospace's technology seems to be a perfect fit for the project if that is the path Google takes. Titan's drones are solar-powered, which would solve the issue of power delivery whereas using balloons means that they must be taken down for refueling.
Satellites, on the other hand, could be the best Internet delivery method of all. The 180 satellites will reportedly orbit the earth at a lower altitude than normal satellites and given their locations, they could provide Internet access to larger areas. According to the Wall Street Journal, when compared to balloons, the satellites offer greater capacity and flexibility, though a higher price tag will limit how many satellites Google can build.
Since Project Loon was first revealed and subsequently rolled out in a test run over New Zealand, many people have praised Google for its Internet expansion initiatives. The majority of people on earth do not have access to the Internet and with Project Loon ability to provide 3G-like speeds, people could at least get online for simple tasks if there is no ground-based Internet provider.
In places like Africa, however, there are many stumbling blocks that could prevent any project from Google or Facebook from being truly useful. In rural areas that currently lack Internet access, people are typically too poor to own devices that need to be connected. As Microsoft founder Bill Gates has mentioned, the poor will benefit more from access to vaccinations, food, and clean water, not access to the Internet.
Speaking with PC Magazine, a Google representative noted that these projects have "the potential to bring hundreds of millions more people online." As great as the projects may sound, if satellites, balloons, or drones begin rolling out over rural areas, the benefit may not even be realized.