In Search of a Few Billion Friends

Facebook and Google compete to complete the Internet

By Mike Hasler

To someone living in a major center, it’s easy to forget not all the world has internet. Maybe that’s because the world wide web isn’t quite yet world wide. Of the planet’s seven billion potential customers, only an estimated three billion people can currently log on, sign in, and download its digital wonders. Just 16% of Africa’s population used the net in 2013, compared with 75% in Europe, so stats like that have started a quest for global connectivity, and there are two champions running a race for supremacy. But with the ground pretty well covered, their starting line is…the sky.

Facebook and Google have both launched into the troposphere with big ideas. “In our effort to connect the whole world with Internet.org, we’ve been working on ways to beam internet to people from the sky,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his FB blog, “(with) drones, satellites … and lasers to deliver the internet to everyone.” The man who was born just twenty years before the world’s largest social networking site and whose prodigy has 1.15 billion users living their lives online, is leading the “Internet.org Initiative” against Google’s “Project Loon,” a balloon-based competitive attempt to finish spinning the world wide web. But, just like Nintendo used to wait to see what Sega was doing so they could release a superior console, the tortoise might win the race.

Facebook recently purchased New Mexico’s Titan Aerospace for a breezy sixty million American dollars, and prior to that sent a friend request and twenty mil to Somerset’s Ascenta to connect with some of the UK’s finest minds on the matter. The social networking superstar’s ambition to connect the billions of people who currently have no access to the web so far puts the win on Facebook’s wall.

Currently the internet’s information flows through fiber optic cables and satellite beams, but everybody’s BFF FB is locking on to the current fascination with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or, as they’re commonly called, drones, to take status updates to the skies. “Our team is actively working on building our first aircraft now,” Zuckerberg said in a published paper entitled Connecting the World from the Sky. “Key members from Ascenta, whose founders created early versions of Zephyr (the world’s longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft) will be joining our Connectivity Lab to work on these aircraft.” Zuckerberg expects to have a prototype to post “in the near future.”

But right now appears to be a great time to fly. Recently a major advance in drone usefulness has made UAV’s a viable option for delivering photos, music and video to Earth’s deepest cave, darkest forest and hottest Savannah. Titan’s Solara 50 and 60 models can be launched at night on power from internal battery packs, then, when day fills them with solar energy, the Solaras can store enough to ascend to 20KM above sea level, where they can fly five years without landing nor pulling into a Sky Station for a coffee and magazine. The benefits of solar power pile from there. Assuming North Korea keeps its head, we shouldn’t be having any nuclear wars in the next few years, so solar power will not only remain a renewable resource, but sun-powered drones prove superior to their battery-driven ancestors by not having to carry fuel nor recharging equipment, and with no pilot, the plane isn’t trying to lug the extra Doritos and Coke bottles solo fliers might comfort themselves with in lonely skies.

Shine some rays over on Google’s approach, a strange mix of forward-thinking and old-fashioned application. Their Project Loon is launching high-altitude balloons over New Zealand to create an internet signal ring around the southern hemisphere’s 40th parallel. South Dakota-based Raven Aerostar has crafted the solar powered balloons for Project Loon, and, although featuring panels powered by the sun, the balloons don’t yet boast the impressive flight times of Titan’s Solaras. Raven Aerostar’s best time in the sky carrying “a large scientific payload” is 55 days, 1 hour and 35 minutes. That’s about 4 years, 310 days less time spent in the sky than a Solara; not high enough to catch Facebook but it might be enough to get to the land of Oz. Raven’s balloons look made of clear plastic and are officially listed as being “pumpkin-shaped”. Now what design – plastic pumpkin balloons or sleek composites combining elements like Tritanium and Kevlar – will better survive the careening of a drunk vulture or the talons of an eagle who can’t get good GPS?

Between robots and balloons…Facebook gets the Like, at least until Twitter finds a way to take everything and reduce it to a single superior update.

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