Tech Talk: ...And internet for all

Updated March 25, 2014

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In this June 10, 2013 photo released by Jon Shenk, a Google balloon sails through the air with the Southern Alps mountains in the background, in Tekapo, New Zealand. — AP Photo
In this June 10, 2013 photo released by Jon Shenk, a Google balloon sails through the air with the Southern Alps mountains in the background, in Tekapo, New Zealand. — AP Photo

The amount of information available to us, thanks to the technology that has been developed so far, has led us way ahead of our predecessors. However, this is true only for the privileged segment of the world’s population.

We are now creating new classifications based on the impact technology has on a certain region and how cities have been transformed because of it. The first step in any such transformation is an unrestricted availability of knowledge, and the most comprehensive means to it is arguably the internet.

However, even in many first-world countries, while internet devices are getting cheaper and smarter with each passing day, the data costs can still burden the average user. On the other hand, most under-developed and remote areas around the world still have no internet access. With 2.7 billion people on the internet, its annual growth rate is only nine per cent, which is alarming, considering the growth spikes in related technology sectors.

Visionary tech giants around the world are looking to solve this problem in their own unique ways. From Mark Zukerberg’s “Internet.org” initiative to make internet cheaper, faster and business-friendly, to Google’s Project Loon and even venture capitalist Syed Karim’s outer space internet provision project called ‘Outernet’, there are plenty of initiatives already underway to make us believe it is possible. Projects like these will definitely lead to all sorts of desired and accidental innovation. Let’s review the possibilities:

Outernet

Outernet proposes the use of data casting technology through hundreds of low cost satellites in Earth’s orbit. Since it will not be subject to any regional laws (in theory) that implement censorship and data restrictions, it will provide unrestricted access to information across the globe.

Outernet’s first target is to initiate data broadcasts (one way communication). This means that it will only deliver selective information like news, online educational courses, maps, emergency communication and entertainment. Two-way, interactive internet comes next.

Shortwave radio data casting is mostly used in voice communications, like AM radio broadcasts or long-distance communications with ships and aircrafts. It is not known for extensive use in digital data transmission. However, it is an interesting technology with great potential, and with satellites and the International Space Station involved in the mix, it does feel like the final frontier of internet technology!

Having said that, the information available for the project is limited and the implementation strategy is rather ambitious, quoting June 2015 as the basic launch date. Without any evident angel investment backing them up (so far) and with the website accepting donations and ideas from visitors, it seems more like a forum to initiate a dialogue rather than a firm plan of action. It might even be a marketing ploy for the involved stakeholders to attract investors for related projects. Either way, it’s a good place to start.

Internet.org

Mark Zuckerberg is the face of Internet.org, but Facebook is not alone in this non-profit initiative. It’s a collaboration of Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, MediaTek, Opera, and Qualcomm. Rather than running after high internet speeds, software developers around the world are working on more efficient use of data to minimise cost, power consumption and access time. That is one of the central ideas behind this initiative.

Another sustainable idea is to develop new business models to drive businesses into creating new products that will accelerate the internet adoption rate, while increasing revenue and marketing opportunities. As the Internet.org member list suggests, this will be done on both hardware and software levels through cheaper devices as well as efficient data and power use through software techniques like compression and caching.

Zuckerberg's statement: “Everyone should at least have a dial tone of the internet”, is a concept that is similar to the phase one vision of Outernet. The ‘dial tone’ here includes free access to services like messages, search engines, Wikipedia, social networks, business news and weather news etcetera.

Zuckerberg recognises the obstacles of the philanthropic declaration by these companies, but also seems optimistic about the profitability of the ‘knowledge economy’, as opposed to a resource-based economy, which is currently limited to one-third of the world’s population.

Loon by Google

The Google Loon pilot project was initiated in New Zealand in June 2013. It’s based on hot air balloons steered across segments of the Earth’s stratosphere. It uses the existing concept of ad-hoc networks: Each balloon sends signals to the users for internet access as well as other balloons to propagate the signals. Users require a special antenna on their roofs to catch these signals.

The balloons are self-piloted through software and charged automatically through solar panels, while being monitored by operators on ground. The steering is done through a clever understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere. Each balloon keeps moving at a slow pace across wind channels of a particular region, periodically going higher or lower to join a different wind channel.

The software helps maintain signals in the covered region by making sure that at least one of the balloons is nearby, thus forming a floating network above the coverage area. The balloons use ISM band radio frequencies that are free for public use.

Once implemented, the project seems self-sustaining, with minimum upkeep required. However, local regulations, cost of installation and the seed internet connection/setup in different countries can vary extensively and poses probably the biggest challenge in its commercial implementation.

Also note that Google’s vision is towards accelerated internet adoption, not necessarily towards free internet. Another such pilot program called “Project Link” was initiated by Google in Kampala (Uganda), based on fibre optic technology, but its target audience was Internet Service providers, not the end users themselves.

Conclusion

Outernet seems to be the project with the most expansive vision, involving satellites and outer-space. This leads to a top-to-bottom approach as opposed to the Google’s grass-roots level approach of Wi-Fi clusters. Internet.org, on the other hand, simply seems to be an effort to accelerate the natural progression of internet growth to develop more business, sooner.