By Tim Werth
Around half of the population of Earth still has little or no access to the internet, but tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are racing to fix that sorry state of affairs.
For potential internet users in rural or underdeveloped areas, there are a lot of structural barriers to internet access. The amount of data being processed worldwide is steadily outgrowing data centre infrastructure, and those data centres require a lot of energy. A survey from 2011 reported that over 38% of large companies expected to exceed their IT capacity within 18 months, and this trend has only accelerated since then. Even large groups like Google and Microsoft have barely stayed ahead of the curve by investing billions into projects like undersea cables and data centre batteries. It’s estimated that about 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created for every person on the planet every second by the year 2020, and the world’s data infrastructure needs to expand and improve in a huge way to handle that kind of traffic.
Issues such as cybercrime can’t be ignored, either. With a rise in productive web use naturally comes a rise in harmful web use, and damage from cybercrime is projected to reach $6 trillion per year by 2021.
Challenges aside, internet access is associated with marked benefits to developing country economies and poverty alleviation. The small Central African country of Gabon is an oft-cited example. For about a decade, the Central African Backbone (CAB) project has constructed a fibre-optic “backbone” throughout Central African countries to connect and enrich them via high-speed internet. From about 2012 to the present day of July 2018, Gabon has been a focus of the CAB project. Since 2010, the price of internet access in Gabon has fallen from $18 per month to $2.8 per month, and the amount of Gabonese internet users has increased sevenfold, creating opportunities for communication, education, and employment that were previously inaccessible.
An alternative to the difficult and time-consuming work of laying fibre optic cables has traditionally been sending up huge geostationary satellites that provide slow but functional internet access for remote areas. Smaller and speedier satellite array projects from SpaceX, Facebook, and other companies have the same aim as that of CAB and geostationary satellite projects, but wish to streamline the process and provide a higher-quality internet connection.
SpaceX has long had a project in mind to launch 12,000 satellites, many more than the currently existing number orbiting Earth. The goal of Project Starlink? To have small arrays of mini-satellites that create worldwide, 24/7 internet access. This project is still a ways off from being officially launched, but SpaceX is already using practice launches of its reusable Falcon 9 rocket to test satellite transport. On July 22 2018, the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rocket celebrated a successful launch and landing. The rocket dropped a brand new Telstar 19V geostationary satellite in Earth’s orbit on its short journey. Two satellites for Project Starlink were test-launched in February of 2018, and in the coming months, SpaceX plans to launch two more geostationary satellites for third parties.
Elon Musk and SpaceX aren’t the only ones racing to create satellite arrays for internet expansion: OneWeb and Facebook have joined in on the massive project. Facebook has confirmed that it is developing satellite array technology, but it’s rumoured to be discreetly conducting business with the FCC and other entities under the name PointView Tech LLC. Their current goal is to launch their own internet satellite dubbed “Athena” in early 2019, but the expectation is that “Athena” will be the first of many to bring the internet — and Facebook — to new users worldwide.
Tim Werth is an analyst at Hubshout.
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