Google’s eye on the sky seems wider than ever. The company reportedly is planning to spend at least US$1 billion on a project to bring Internet access to remote areas through satellites.
It is not yet clear whether the plan would augment or replace Project Loon — Google’s proposal to connect remote regions to the Internet through high-altitude balloons. However, the report suggests that Google hopes the plan will help it to overcome technical and financial hurdles that hampered similar projects in the past.
While the details of the scheme are shifting, the project will begin with around 180 small, high-capacity satellites that will have a lower orbit than traditional satellites and may expand from there, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“The potential of the reported Google project would be to help ensure that the next generation of unserved Internet users comes online, said Charles King, principal at Pund-IT.
“The fact is that often due to political folly and economic challenges, potential online access suffers. So it’s both interesting and admirable that private concerns like Google, Facebook and others are investigating alternatives for creating the infrastructure necessary to support wireless Internet access,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Google apparently has been hiring engineers from Space Systems/Loral to work on the initiative, which is being led by Greg Wyler, founder of satellite communications company O3b Networks. Wyler and O3b’s former chief technology officer recently joined Google. Between 10 and 20 people are said to be working under Wyler.
The company is spending between $1 billion and north of $3 billion — a price tag that will be affected by the final design of the network, further phases that could expand the number of satellites to double the initial number, and other factors.
Project Loon had the potential to build a network of balloons to cover the entire planet, Google CEO Larry Page said at a conference earlier this year, noting that balloons were cheaper and faster to build.
However, satellites can afford greater capacity and flexibility, while costs to build them appear to have dropped in recent years.
“I think the satellites will initially complement Project Loon,” Laura DiDio, principal at ITIC, told TechNewsWorld. At first glance, satellites appear to be more robust than high-altitude balloons circumnavigating the globe, which could be knocked off course or downed by severe weather conditions. Satellites can also be impacted by an incident that might occur in space, but seem more substantial than a high-altitude balloon.”
‘Cheaper to Build’
“Balloons can more easily be shot down, typically have less range, and are more vulnerable to atmospheric conditions, but they are far cheaper to build and launch,” said Rob Enderle, principal at the Enderle Group. “A typical developing country doesn’t have the technology to shoot down satellites. They can execute Loon more quickly, but the satellite approach would potentially be far more strategic.”
As part of the project, Google apparently plans to take advantage of developments in antenna technology, which can track multiple moving satellites. Some current antennas have no moving parts and can be controlled by software, which lowers maintenance and manufacturing costs.
“They want to increase their reach and do have a belief that every person in the world should have access to the Internet,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld. “While they clearly have a revenue goal as well, I think in this instance, it is secondary — given the audience — to their goal of making people better informed.”
Along with the somewhat noble notion of connecting people in remote regions to the Internet, Google’s latest Internet scheme could be seen as part of tech companies’ tussle to take over Internet infrastructure, largely bypassing the networks of telecoms.
Google has laid more than 100,000 miles of fiber-optic cables around the world, a report earlier this year indicated.
“Truthfully, Google’s motives are a mix of altruism and pragmatism. They can bring Internet connectivity to remote peoples and portions of the globe and make a profit doing it. Sounds like a win-win to me,” ITIC’s DiDio said. [*Correction – May 1, 2014]
Facebook and several other technology firms have teamed up to use drones to bring Internet access to people in remote areas through Internet.org.
“I think their respective plans might be cooperative in the early planning stages and then diverge if and when the project actually takes off,” DiDio speculated. “At that point, Google will have to refine its goals to suit the individual usage models. But initially at least, I can see many people in remote locations wanting to use the same technology to connect to Facebook and Internet.org.”
Connecting Those at Home
The implications of such ambitious projects stretch far beyond the developing world.
“There is tremendous potential If Google goes forward with its project to give unwired portions of the planet Internet access using small satellites,” DiDio said.
“The impact and implications are enormous for both developed as well as developing nations. Location is a huge obstacle and impediment to Internet access,” she pointed out.
“While it’s unthinkable to city dwellers and suburbanites, there are still many rural or geographically remote areas in the U.S. with no connectivity,” DiDio added. “According to the FCC’s Eighth Broadband Progress Report released in August 2012, 75 percent or 14.5 million of the 19 million Americans that currently lack Internet access live in rural or remote areas where connectivity and broadband are unavailable.
“The biggest group of disenfranchised here in the U.S. are 5.1 million Native American Indians and Alaska Natives,” DiDio continued. “The majority of Native Americans live on 324 tribal reservation lands — many of which are rural and remote — in the lower 48 states and Alaska, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. They are miles from any town or power grid, and many reservations lack electrical power — which means no Internet connectivity. Imagine the difference this could make in their lives.”
*ECT News Network editor’s note – June 3, 2014: Our original published version of this story incorrectly attributed this remark to tech analyst Rob Enderle. It was Laura DiDio, principal at ITIC, who made the observation.