The internet is one of the most important inventions of the modern era.
However, current estimates say that only 40 percent of people around the
globe have access. As internet connectivity becomes ever more important,
new technologies are emerging to connect the entire globe with better,
faster service. On several continents, research and development projects
are underway to provide internet connectivity via high-altitude balloons
-- not unlike those used to capture weather data, unmanned solar-powered
drones and next-generation wireless routers. Each offers higher speeds
and more reliability than current modes, plus the obvious benefit:
getting the world online, all at the same time.
Facebook aims for solar-powered internet-beaming
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is famous for expressing a desire to
connect the entire globe to the internet, and the company wants to
launch giant soaring drones to beam out internet access around the
world. Facebook's own Connectivity Lab has developed a solar-powered
drone with a wingspan as large as that of a Boeing 747. Dubbed Aquila,
the drone took its first test flight in June 2016 and, while not
equipped with internet technology at the time, the flight was a huge
success. The actual flight lasted a whopping 96 minutes (66 minutes
longer than planned), and helped the research team tackle the next phase
of innovation. Someday, Facebook hopes the highly energy-efficient
drones will fly in a 60-mile radius while simultaneously beaming out
internet access wherever needed.
MIT's 330 percent faster WiFi
Just a few months ago, researchers at MIT's Computer Science and
Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) announced a breakthrough in new
wireless internet that is 330 percent faster and twice the bandwidth of
existing technology. Dubbed MegaMIMO 2.0, the technology uses multiple
transmitters and receivers to relay data simultaneously, increasing the
amount of data in a given bandwidth. This development could someday lead
to better, faster internet in public spaces and large gatherings like
concerts and sporting events. The new technology could also address the
issue of spectrum crunch by distributing data differently so that
backups and congestion on the network simply don't occur.
Li-Fi leaves WiFi in the dark?
Last year a French startup developed a wireless internet technology
based on LEDs that they claim is 100 times faster than existing WiFi.
The so-called "Li-Fi" exploits the flicker rate of LED lamps, which is
typically imperceptible to the naked eye. That frequency is much higher
than the radio waves conventional wireless internet employs. Li-Fi
requires light to work, so it can't pass through walls like WiFi, but it
can be used to specifically target a specific user. What's more, its
secure nature makes it a potential fit in places like hospitals or
schools where speed and privacy are high priorities.
Project Loon floats balloon-based internet access
Long before Facebook launched its own drone to beam internet through the
sky, Google began Project Loon, a similar initiative that relies on
balloons. The high-altitude internet-equipped balloons are designed to
spread connectivity in rural parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, plus
anywhere else that access is spotty. The project gained traction in 2013
when Google tapped residents of California's Central Valley to volunteer
to let the team install an antenna on their home in order to test the
beaming balloons. Three years and many tests later on several
continents, Project Loon (now operating under X, formerly Google X)
continues to perfect its internet-beaming technology in the hopes of
someday filling in the empty spots in the data coverage map.
Samsung's satellite idea
Consumer electronics company Samsung has a big idea for stretching the
interwebs around the globe -- using satellites. In 2015, the company
proposed a global network of 4,600 satellites floating in low-Earth
orbit that could beam up to 1 zettabyte (1 trillion gigabytes) a month.
The plan would fly satellites closer to Earth than previous schemes to
provide access at speeds internet users are already accustomed to at
home. Will Samsung's satellite web ever actually happen? It's not
likely, but wild ideas like this keep the conversation going.