Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform, announced this week its plan to bring internet access to billions of people in poor, remote areas of the planet. The Facebook Connectivity Lab is tasked to “deliver the internet to everyone” via a network of drones, satellites, and lasers. The initiative is a follow-up to Facebook’s internet.org, a multi-company project to bridge the so-called “digital divide” of internet access between wealthy and poor countries. The Lab will collaborate with various aerospace and communication technology experts, including some from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, said in a statement the goal was to enable “affordable access to basic internet services available to every person in the world.”
Zuckerberg’s plan envisions a sophisticated fleet of solar-powered drones connected to a network of geosynchronous satellites that will beam internet access to the ground via infrared. “Connecting the whole world will require inventing new technology,” confessed Zuckerberg. Rumors abound that Facebook intends to purchase the drone-manufacturer Titan, although no formal bid has been made. The social media giant, in conjunction with local telecoms, has already doubled the number of internet-users in Paraguay and the Phillipines using basic implementations of imagined technology.
Google, on the other hand, is already one year into its Project Loon, an ambitious scheme to connect remote areas to the internet via high-pressure balloons. Thirty of Google’s Loon balloons were launched in New Zealand last June. Loon is one of a number of projects in progress at Google’s mysterious Division X, charged with designing the next generation of technology.
Although these initiatives may at first appear entirely altruistic, Google and Facebook both have an ulterior motive for wanting to bridge the digital divide. Facebook, with 1.2 billion users worldwide, has reached the limit of its expansion. Without adding new users, Facebook faces a long road of slow stagnation. The announcement heralds Facebook’s diversification and the beginning of its transformation into more than just a social-networking site.
Designing and building the technology, however, will probably be the easiest part of Facebook’s far-reaching plan. Convincing governments to allow Facebook drones and Google ballons to use their airspaces will likely prove more challenging. Particularly since the revelations of NSA spying on foreign governments and officials, often with the colligence of US-based telecoms, leaders of countries without reliable internet access may be wary of getting online with the help of American companies.