Although a concept less than 50 years old, the World Wide Web has grown to become the defining technology of our era — from e-commerce and email to online education and cloud computing, Internet-based technologies have revolutionized industries, created many more, and have become something that many people cannot live without. Despite the Internet’s rapid growth, more than half of the world’s population has yet to come online (1) — in other words, over four billion people spread across the globe lack access to the virtually limitless and incredibly powerful services found on the web. Many efforts are under way to make the World Wide Web more accessible both geographically and economically, and ultimately bridge this “digital divide.”
Google’s Project Loon: Extending the Web to Remote Communities
In one of their most fantastical projects to date, 18 months ago Google announced plans to launch high-altitude, transmitter-carrying balloons to provide Internet to remote communities. In most cases, computers get online by communicating via copper or fiber optic cable (usually the phone or cable line) with the Internet service provider’s local server facilities. While cellular towers and this cable infrastructure are practically a given in developed urban or suburban areas, it is often economically impractical to build and maintain these networks in sparsely populated areas with few customers. Without this physical connection, users can get online via satellite from almost anywhere in the world, but the costs are high and the speeds are much slower. In the face of this issue, Project Loon attempts to offer the universal coverage of satellite Internet at a cost nearer to that of conventional networks by relaying signals through a network of transmitters in everyday, yet surprisingly versatile items: balloons. Each balloon, filled with helium and spanning about 40 feet in diameter, is solar-powered and floats over twice as high as the weather and air traffic. Furthermore, each has the ability to raise or lower itself in order to join wind currents of different directions at different altitudes, providing coverage for an area of 780 square miles per balloon.
Positioning these balloons as needed, Google could theoretically create a network that allows communities at any geographical location to access the Internet.
Positioning these balloons as needed, Google could theoretically create a network that allows communities at any geographical location to access the Internet. Such a network would also be largely impervious to weather events such as earthquakes or tornadoes that may damage conventional network infrastructure, making it more robust in many situations. Experts were initially skeptical of this entire concept, and indeed it took Google over 100 iterations before finally designing a balloon capable of remaining in the air for over 3 months. Despite those setbacks, Project Loon has successfully launched over 30 balloons in New Zealand, California and Brazil to date, creating a network that pretty convincingly demonstrates the feasibility of this creative solution. If all goes as Google has planned, we’ll one day see thousands more (2) take to the sky.
Internet.org: Lowering Cost of Access
Formed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Internet.org is a partnership between Facebook and mobile phone companies such as Samsung and Nokia that aims to reduce the cost of Internet access and form new programs for people to get online. While the physical infrastructure necessary to get online — whether through broadband or cellular connections — exist in many of the communities Internet.org aims to assist, the costs often make the Internet inaccessible due to low median incomes. To remove the cost barrier, Internet.org has focused both on creating networks that can transmit data more efficiently and on developing apps that are more data efficient to reduce the cost of conducting any online activity. For example, in order to reduce the need to receive data to view the same web page or image multiple times, Facebook is developing a process to cache (or save to the device) some of this information so that it can be accessed again without the need to ask for more online data (3). Since its inception in August of 2013, the group has also created an application that provides free access to health, weather and job search information, as well as launched pilot programs such as SocialEDU, which provides students in Rwanda with the hardware and data necessary to access online educational content. Through these initiatives, Internet.org is taking an economic route to making the Internet more accessible.
While the Internet has already permanently changed many aspects of our society, efforts such as Project Loon and Internet.org are leading the charge to make the Internet accessible by the billions of people who are still searching for ways to get online.