Internet access brings many things to many people. This includes enhanced access to information, global communications, entertainment and education.
However, not everyone has good internet access. Nearly 19 million people have no access to high speed internet in the United States as of 2012. Obviously, this is even worse in the developing world. As of in 2012, only 15% of people in Africa have access to the internet at all.
Two obstacles stand between people and decent internet access. The first is cost. Low income people may not be able to afford internet bills that are higher in rural areas (satellite internet, for example, often runs well over $100 a month). The second is what’s known as “penetration,” which boils down to “is there cable.”
Laying cable to small rural communities is cost prohibitive even in wealthy countries. The United States has a particular problem with penetration because of the size of the country and, in some areas, mountainous terrain. This leaves the only option for many people with the option of the expensive satellite internet. This option is known to be slow as it offers only a tenth of the speed of cable, although in some cases it has been tested to be higher. In addition, it relies on the person having a place on their property with a direct view of the provider’s satellite. Satellite service also has significant “latency”, the time delay caused by distance.
There is a possible low-tech solution, balloons, which Google and others have started to play around with. Large, unmanned balloons (similar to weather balloons) would be sent up into the stratosphere. Users on the ground would mount a special antenna for access. The technology is currently being tested in New Zealand, another place with scattered rural communities and long distances. The speed would be about the same as a 3G phone connection. While it may still be slower than cable, it is better than the current option and there is the possibility of improvement in the future.
Thousands of balloons would be launched, following preprogrammed paths (with controllers on the ground adjusting altitude). The signal would be smoothly bounced from one balloon to the next. Fuel will not be concern. The balloons generate their own electricity through solar panels. Their altitude is higher than airplanes (meaning they won’t be a hazard to navigation) but lower than satellites. Another advantage? Connectivity could be restored quickly after a disaster and balloons could even be steered to provide extra coverage to areas struck by floods, earthquakes, and other events.
The point of the solution is that it is robust and cheaper than laying cable or launching satellites. While global coverage will take years to achieve, it is likely that the access speed will be faster. It’s even possible that balloon-based internet technology will take us a step closer to the cyberpunk dream of the smooth global network in which we can be online all the time. In addition to people in rural areas, the technology might be used by road trippers, people who live aboard and others living non-traditional lifestyles. It might bring internet access to the darkest parts of Africa and Asia, with the transforming power of global communication.
Latest posts by Chris Jones (see all)
- How Balloons Could Soon Provide Worldwide Internet Access - July 25, 2013
- Cable TV Apps: Are They Worth the Download? - May 21, 2013