How do you get to places that are disconnected from infrastructure, roads, electricity? How to you cross mountains and broad seas? You fly, of course! At least that’s the plan of Google X, the Willy Wonka-like experimental department of the world’s search engine, advertising and data powerhouse. Google X has recently launched testing of its solar-powered drones and its Project Loon of balloon-based Internet to connect 4.5 billion people.
From this past March to the start of September, Google has special U.S. federal licenses to test its Titan Aerospace solar-powered drones somewhere over New Mexico. Soon, it’ll also be launched in Barcelona.
Simultaneously, Google is proving that it can use a network of high-altitude helium balloons to provide 4G LTE cellular service to an area the size of Rhode Island. Staying aloft for about six months at a time, the experiment is currently providing Internet for a school in Brazil and is partnering with telecom companies in the Southern Hemisphere, including Telefónica in Latin America. The base of the pilot program is in New Zealand.
Why would far-off agrarian cultures even want WiFi?
“Why should they spend that one, two or three dollars [a month] to access? If you’ve never had access to the Internet, you don’t know why it’s valuable,” said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the 2014 Mobile World Congress keynote. He poses this reasonable question often while promoting his Internet.org foundation which looks to bring the rest of the world online.
If you increase mobile broadband reach by ten percent, you increase a country’s GDP by one percent, and as the rest of the world connects, about 140 million jobs will come. From agriculture to medicine to schools, getting online is opening information up. It can offer ways to overcome drought, identify illness, and open opportunities for children in remote places.
One target audience is the 2.5 billion people in the developing world that are unbanked.
With about 80 percent of the world’s population already living within 2G or 3G range, offering banking services like transfers and payments to many for the first time is a unique opportunity for mobile providers to expand quickly.
But can they even afford to connect?
The other half of the world will skip right over computers and laptops to connect via mobile devices. With feature phones—kind of like the first smartphones of more than a decade ago—costing about $25 or 1,500 rupees each, most can afford a phone, but that’s on average only a quarter of the true cost to connect. The premium price of data megabytes and limited access to electricity to charge batteries are much larger barriers to overcome. Even though the speed in 2G networks has jumped from about 22 seconds to six, those six seconds are still a lot when data is a precious commodity and preserving battery life is critical.
Crowd-sourced encyclopedic non-profit Wikipedia hasn’t gained popularity because it guarantees accuracy, it has skyrocketed in search results because it is an incredibly fast website, made of only text, links to citation, and usually only one small photo that has to load, with no videos and no ads. Similarly Zuckerberg coughed up $19 billion for WhatsApp because he says has made never having ads a priority, and it takes minimal data and battery to run.
Of course, many would argue that with half the world plagued by hunger, limited access to water, and plagued by pandemic disease, maybe getting online isn’t such a priority.
“When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates said, balking at Google’s newest experiment. “Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-health-care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria.”
Of course, let’s not forget there may be an international helium shortage. That’s just another reason it’s up in the air whether Google’s newest venture will fly high or be just another looney idea.