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06 Jul 2017BLUE-SKY THINKING


For most of us, getting broadband internet access isn't that big a deal. You simply plug your modem into the wall, and there it is, just like with your phone or electricity. But for people living in more remote or rural areas, internet access – even a decent mobile signal – might be something that has been promised to you years ago, but still has yet to materialize. It's a tricky problem. After all, in the past, connecting somewhere remote to the network might be a question of digging up hundreds of miles of road and laying hundreds of miles of cable, but that's an expensive and time-consuming business, and not something that anyone wants to pay for. So how do you ensure that everyone in a given country – or in fact, the entire world – has access to a good internet connection? Quite simply, you take to the skies.

It's a big issue for tech companies, which is why it's no surprise to find two of the biggest names in tech making strides toward a solution. Google's Project Loon has been running for several years now. The idea is to use polyethylene balloons that are the size of a tennis court to carry transceivers into the stratosphere (20km above the ground). Designed to last 100 days before making a 'controlled descent' toward the earth, these balloons will create a network in the skies that can provide coverage wherever it is needed. The really clever part of this plan is that the weather is completely different that high up (well above the level that most weather patterns operate), with stratified winds that can be predicted, allowing Google to direct the balloons wherever they are needed.


Facebook are also attempting to do something similar, only with drones instead of balloons. Shaped like a flying 'v', the Aquila drone is undergoing tests at present, with some success. However, it's a very different proposition from Google's plans. For a start, the drones will be flying at between 60,000-90,000 feet. While this is much higher than most commercial jets (which tend to reach a height of 36,000), it's not out of reach of the weather. But being a drone with a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737, it's a bit more maneuverable than a balloon and can be directed where it needs to go by a ground team. The drones will be networked together via lasers, and the plan is that they'll be solar-powered, and therefore capable of staying aloft for months at a time.


Of course, why risk winds and weather when you can just use satellites that hang in low-earth orbit? That's the plan being mulled by several companies, including OneWeb (partially backed by Richard Branson), which has just been given approval by the FCC to deliver satellite internet in the US. All it needs to do now is create and launch a proposed 720 small satellites. Perhaps they'll get some help from one of their competitors, SpaceX, who in addition to having their own reusable, self-landing rockets, also have ambitions to launch their own mini-satellite arrays.


Having the right hardware to solve complex problems like these is one thing, but there's also a good deal of science involved too. That's where China has an edge when it comes to connecting the world; they've managed to break the distance record for communication between quantum-entangled protons. Not sure what that means? Well, me neither, but the point is, they've managed to increase the distance needed for two satellites to talk to each other from 143km to 1200km. In short, they can use two satellites where they would have once needed to use eight. Given the extreme cost and difficulty of getting things into a geo-stationary orbit around the earth, this can only be a good thing.


We've a long way to go before we can get to the stage where everyone can cheaply get internet access wherever they are in the world, but we're getting there. As long as technology and innovation can continue to work together.