Mark Zuckerberg announced on Thursday in a Facebook post that the social networking site is working with Internet.org to develop new technology to beam the Internet to anywhere in the world.
The Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) CEO wants everyone to sign up for his site, whether they live in rural Africa or somewhere in the Australian outback. To that end, Facebook's Connectivity Lab wants to connect the entire world to the Internet, whether it takes existing technology, or the invention of something entirely new, to get it done.
Facebook’s plan is to use solar-powered drones to transmit the Internet to suburban areas below that lack it. The company's plan also calls for satellites to beam the Internet to “user terminals” in areas with low population densities. In fact, the Connectivity Lab’s satellite system sounds a lot like Google Inc.’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Project Loon, one of the search giant’s “moonshots," which has similar aims, mainly to provide Internet access to those living in remote areas.
Whereas Google’s Project Loon will use a network of hot-air balloons to connect the Internet to rural areas, Facebook’s Connectivity Lab plans to build solar-powered drones to connect highly populated, suburban areas to rural ones. The company will likely use technology from U.K.-based Ascenta, which Facebook bought for $20 million. Ascenta staff will work with teams that Facebook acquired from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ames Research Center and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
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How will the Connectivity Lab get its high-flying plans to work? As former MIT visiting scientist and current Facebook employee Yael Maguire explained it, the drones will employ a “new type of plane architecture that flies at 20,000 meters,” which will enable them to be unaffected by commercial airlines, wind and the weather. Maguire says they will be capable of remaining “in the air for months at a time.”
For rural areas with low population densities, Facebook’s Connectivity Lab plans to employ satellite systems. Maguire says they could span “perhaps even across continents” in a low-Earth orbit. The satellites will then be “constantly moving … [which] necessitates a steady stream” of Internet signal and a “user terminal” for those on the ground to receive the satellite broadcast.
Maguire says there are a “fabulous set of problems” to overcome to make the satellites work, which the Connectivity Lab plans to tackle with lasers. The problem, as he describes it in a YouTube video, involves how broadcast networks are currently bound to satellite towers that require a terrestrial connection to the Internet.
Lasers can offer a wireless connection to the Connectivity Lab's satellite system, delivering high speeds on par with “fiber optics,” Maguire said. A Facebook spokesperson said the company had "no specifics to share" on a timeline for when the Connectivity Lab plans to begin testing.
"Our goal with Internet.org is to make affordable access to basic Internet services available to every person in the world," Zuckerberg said in his post announcing Connectivity Lab. So what does Facebook make of Google's Project Loon?
"The Connectivity Labs were established to support the initiative of Internet.org," a spokersperson said. "The more companies, the more organizations working towards the goal of connecting people around the world, the better."
Follow Reporter Thomas Halleck @tommylikey