February 22, 2016

Internet from the Heavens

Commercial drones are all the buzz. Drone deliveries are capturing headlines, but there’s another industry these devices are poised to upend: Internet access. Google recently announced “Project Skybender,” an effort to deliver wireless Internet access using high-altitude, solar-powered drones. And they’re not alone. Facebook is also reimagining how we think about Internet delivery systems with its Aquila drone initiative.

The major advantage of drone-based internet service is that it doesn’t require expensive investments in major physical infrastructure. “Not only do aircraft allow us to not have to dig to lay down fiber backhaul,” Yael Maguire, a Facebook engineer, wrote last year on the company’s blog, “but aircraft have the added benefit of allowing the onboard communications technology to be upgraded at whatever rate is required to meet the market needs.”

That’s reason enough to be excited about this technology. At this point, however, it’s not clear how it will work.

A white paper from Facebook’s Connectivity Lab says that the company’s drones are slated to operate at altitudes above 60,000 feet, outside the reach of the FAA’ s regulatory authority, and will rely on free space optics (FSO), which uses light to transmit data. FSO technology is promising. It is unregulated, so far, and can provide high bandwidths while consuming less power than more traditional microwave systems. But there are also technical weaknesses, yet to be overcome. Transmitting data from the sky in the form of  light requires precise alignment between transmitters and receivers and clear lines of sight. This means that drone-based FSO networks “don’t work through clouds and are very vulnerable to bad weather conditions.”

Google is experimenting with high-frequency millimeter wave (MMW) transmissions, a technology that could serve as a foundation for 5G wireless Internet access. MMW transmissions operate at an underutilized band of the radio spectrum, avoiding the crowded bands currently used by cellphones. Like FSOs, however, there are a number of technical hurdles that need to be cleared before the technology will work. The functional effectiveness of millimeter waves are limited by the shortness of the distance they can travel. And because millimeter waves are far shorter than current 4G phone signals, Google engineers need to figure out how to effectively narrow and focus the transmissions so they can be transmitted over longer distances while retaining their signal strength.

Elon Musk has also thrown his hat into the ring. His audacious “space Internet” initiative would use a vast network of low-orbit satellites, rather than drones, to beam the Internet to Earth. Musk’s project, which requires an expensive space-based satellite infrastructure, seems aimed at creating a super-high-speed global ISP that would generate revenue to finance his Mars colony scheme. Google and Facebook, whose profits rely on selling advertisements and user data, want to bring more of the global population online, for obvious reasons, and might be willing to deploy their drone networks at a loss. Whatever the business model behind it, the race is on to deliver the Internet from above.

This is good news for people in rural communities and developing countries where there is little investment in Internet infrastructure. Bringing underserved communities online could have a majorly positive impact, providing improved access to online markets and vital information, and expanding their opportunities. A system that allows for regular upgrades, at a fraction of the cost needed to improve large-scale terrestrial infrastructure, means that it could eventually become cheaper to get the Internet from the sky than through fiber cables.

The FAA and other government regulatory agencies have yet to touch upon the development of these innovative approaches to delivering Internet bandwidth from the heavens above. That’s a good thing. A lack of regulatory interference is part of the reason there has been so much interest and development in this space. Whether by drones or satellites, the future of Internet service may come from the heavens. The longer regulators wait to meddle, the sooner that future will arrive.