Digitally Enhanced

Digitally Enhanced

25.11.2016 Ubiquity of connectivity: Weekender Digitally Enhanced Column 27

My official start in technology businesses goes back to 4 December 1989 but I well remember my interest in the technological world being stirred up when our school, St. Johns College, purchased two Apple II computers in the early eighties and I started tinkering and programming and being entirely fascinated. With almost twenty-seven years officially involved in technology and well over thirty years of playing with computers and electronics, I am often asked for my opinion on the most significant technology changes I have witnessed in that time.

The answer is easy. The ubiquity of connectivity. Well, almost ubiquity. In cities and metropolitan areas throughout the nation, we have a reasonable expectation that we can access the outside world – via some method – no matter where we are. Unfortunately, there are Australian residents who live outside these cities that are incredibly important to our economy and standard of living that struggle to find any connection but the general expectation is that we can connect wherever we are.

The problems we experience in regional Australia are mirrored in other countries around the globe. Eritrea is officially the worst connected country in the world with 1.1 per cent Internet penetration but there are 38 countries with less than 10 per cent Internet penetration including (in order) locations such as Timor-Leste; Somalia; Ethiopia; Madagascar (the Penguins wouldn’t be happy); Tanzania; Mozambique; Cambodia; Rwanda and more. Locations with poor Internet connectivity usually two items in common. Poor infrastructure in general and poor economic conditions. To throw in an extra ingredient, many of the countries towards the bottom of the list also have challenging terrain.

I have previously talked about some of the issues involving satellites for Internet connectivity. Satellites in geostationary orbit are at an approximate distance of 35,786km above the earth and, as such, the latency makes the Internet frustrating to use so many organisations are going away from satellite solutions. There is also the minor factor of exorbitant cost to consider. The other solution I have previously mentioned has been satellites in Low Earth Orbit. These satellites typically sit around 780km to 1,414km above the earth so the latency is dramatically reduced. To give consistent coverage in one area, you require anywhere from 26 to 52 satellites so although the lag time is reduced, the exorbitant cost goes up another notch.

Two little companies that you may have heard of are currently involved in attempts to bring connectivity to remote and regional locations that can be delivered at reasonable speeds at costs that are not stratospheric. One advantage of having a company that is making billions of dollars a year in profits is that you can pour some of that money into making the world a better place. At least that is what Google and Facebook would have us believe. The cynics may suggest that the more people on the globe that are connected to the Internet then the higher the profits will be for companies like Google and Facebook. Regardless of the motivation, the technology is fascinating.

Project Loon is a research and development project developed by Google that uses, wait for it, balloons. The concept is that, unlike the costs, the balloons will be stratospheric. A number of balloons will be floated into the stratosphere at a height of about 18km above the earth. The balloons will communicate with each other and ISPs on the ground to deliver Internet connectivity at 4G-LTE speeds (similar to the speeds we achieve on our current mobile phone network). An area in New Zealand was used as an early pilot with 50 users connecting to the system and Sri Lanka is currently in the process of connecting with Project Loon on a mass scale. I can only assume Sri Lanka was chosen due to low Internet connectivity (21.9 per cent) combined with a small land mass (65,610 square kilometres – smaller than Tasmania) and a high population density (a population of 20.5 million people). It also helped that the government came on board as a joint venture partner.

Despite ten balloon ‘crashes’ so far, Project Loon is confident that each balloon will be able to stay airborne for over six months at a time.

Not to be outdone, Facebook is working on a slightly different concept. The Facebook Connectivity Lab is currently testing Aquila – a solar powered drone that will fly at 18km above the earth. A number of drones will be used to deliver a similar solution to Project Loon’s balloons. The delivery of the signal to various locations is the relatively simple part – the tricky part is keeping something up in the air for months at a time. It is interesting that the two projects have gone for dramatically different mechanisms. The first test flight of Aquila was only in June this year and after 96 minutes in the air it had a slightly bumpy landing that damaged the drone but it was a first step.

We used to think our airspace was becoming crowded with 12,024 commercial planes up in the air at the time I wrote this article. As Google and Facebook and other players join the market to deliver Internet connectivity from above, I can see this airspace becoming almost as crowded.

Mathew Dickerson