In the past quarter of a century the internet has gone from an academic curiosity to—in the rich world at least—an omnipresent utility. Yet worldwide, around 57% of people are offline. In Africa, the figure is 79% (see chart).
Getting people online is important. But it is also difficult. Many live in rural areas, where providing infrastructure is harder than in densely populated cities (some rural folk in rich countries struggle with internet access for the same reason). Beginning in 2016, though, a clutch of tech firms hope to change that, and to provide internet access to almost everyone on the planet.
The furthest advanced is Google. Its “Project Loon” (when it was first proposed the idea seemed crazy) plans to gird the Earth with a swarm of thousands of high-flying helium balloons. Each will carry a solar-powered transceiver. The balloons will act as flying mobile-phone stations and Wi-Fi access points, relaying signals from users’ phones and computers to base stations hundreds of miles away, and from then on to the internet at large.
The balloons will not have propellers, engines or any other means of direct propulsion. But that does not mean they cannot be steered. By changing altitude, they can hitch a ride on winds blowing in different directions. With enough balloons and enough information about the wind—some provided by weather forecasters and some collected by the balloons themselves—the firm hopes to be able to manage its swarm such that almost everywhere in the world will be covered almost all of the time. Trials have begun in New Zealand. The firm hopes to begin a limited commercial service in 2016, with Sri Lanka already having signed an agreement for coverage.
Other companies, though, are chomping at Google’s heels. Facebook wants to build a similar network, using solar-powered, propeller-driven drone aircraft instead of balloons. Its drones—which, unlike Google’s balloons, can be steered—should be ready for large-scale testing in 2016.
Meanwhile OneWeb, a satellite company founded in 2012, and SpaceX, a rocket firm, both want to use low-flying satellites. They hope these will provide a better service than today’s satellite internet, which relies on a small number of big satellites in high orbits, and tends to be expensive and limited. OneWeb and SpaceX plan to launch hundreds and thousands of satellites respectively. Facebook and Google are likely to need an order of magnitude more drones and balloons.
The firms all plan to make money by doing deals with local telecoms companies keen to patch holes in their coverage. Google and Facebook will benefit indirectly, too: every extra person who gets an internet connection is an extra person to whom they can show advertisements.
Google and Facebook, having demonstrated their technologies in flight, are ahead of their satellite competitors. The satellite idea was tried (and failed) before, during the dotcom boom. But that was then, when an internet connection was a luxury. These days, increasingly, it is a necessity. The world’s unconnected will be hoping the tech giants can pull it off.