Facebook has reported progress in its plan to expand access to the internet in previously unserved areas. The CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said the company is conducting test flights of unmanned planes designed to beam access to the internet down to the ground. Zuckerberg wrote on his blog that the first test flight in the UK had been a success.
The final design of these planes will be powered by solar panels, have a wingspan greater than a Boeing 737 but weigh less than a car, and will fly for months at a time at an altitude of 60,000 feet. The planes are part of internet.org, an initiative to expand internet access to the two thirds of the world that currently has none.
Google is also trying to expand internet access through what it calls Project Loon, which would use a network helium balloons floating in the stratosphere to beam internet access down to the ground.
Signal spotted by James Goodman
Image: Carl Jones / Flickr
This competition between two companies the size of Facebook and Google indicates that the idea of expanding internet access to the remaining two-thirds of the world is a serious proposition.
It points to rapid progress in wireless internet networks that do not rely upon fixed infrastructure, focusing instead on how this can be delivered from above - via either solar-powered drones or a network of balloons. As well as bringring the internet to areas where fixed infrastructure is too difficult or expensive, this also has implications for providing internet links when fixed infrastructure fails, such as after natural disasters.
Expanding internet access to unconnected areas could bring benefits such as access to education, government services, and economic opportunities. Online government services could improve the delivery and cost efficiency of administration, particularly in areas where infrastructure is poor. New economic opportunities could also lead to important shifts in the structure of an economy, with losers and well as winners.
Facebook's use of unmanned planes are an indication of the growing maturity of this sector, including solar panel technology and the potential for drones to fill all sorts of functions.
Thanks to solar-powered drones, will wifi-free zones soon be mapped like dark skies?