How Google just turned Internet access into a space race

First Facebook, now Google.

The search giant is exploring how to use satellites to beam wireless data down to people in developing countries in a bid to expand internationally, according to the Wall Street Journal. The idea builds on the company's existing efforts, such as its balloon-based Project Loon, to serve otherwise disconnected regions of the world and places where it's too expensive to set up fixed broadband or cellular towers for mobile data.

According to the Journal, Google will invest between $1 billion and $3 billion on 180 small satellites the company plans to place in low Earth orbit. Google is reportedly working with O3b, a satellite technology company that raised $410 million in 2010 from Google's investing arm and several other backers.

"Internet connectivity significantly improves people's lives," said Google in a statement to The Washington Post. "Yet two-thirds of the world have no access at all. It's why we're so focused on new technologies — from Project Loon to Titan Aerospace — that have the potential to bring hundreds of millions more people online in the coming years."

The satellites will be pretty light, about 250 pounds each. Because they'll be orbiting the globe quickly and not staying fixed in one position over the earth, Google will need to use sophisticated antennas on the ground to track the satellites as they move across the sky.

Facebook's own vision for satellite-based Internet is no less ambitious. It's weighing the cost and benefits of satellites that float in geostationary orbit, meaning that ground antennas can stay pointed in one direction. That's the upside. The downside is that getting a satellite up that high is very, very costly. And unless they can figure out how to make high-speed laser communications work through clouds and weather, sending Web traffic so far using conventional radio waves may cause a laggy connection.


(Internet.org)

Facebook has proven a little more farsighted — at least publicly — than its competitors in the Googleplex. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was a first mover on the idea of using drones to provide Internet service, sparking rumors that Facebook was buying Titan Aerospace in early March. It wound up acquiring the U.K.-based manufacturer Ascenta instead, leaving Titan Aerospace to be bought by Google the following month. Google's own satellite Internet initiative comes two months after Facebook said it was pursuing the idea.

Zuckerberg has been keen to take swipes at Google on the issue, arguing in a recent white paper, for example, that balloons would fly too erratically to be effective. Analysts apparently agree. According to the Journal, Google is expected to phase out its balloons, which it said could bring Internet faster and more cheaply than other technologies, when it sets up its drone- and satellite-based alternatives.

But Google has already gotten a head start when it comes to designing the software that could power its satellites. NASA has begun testing basic, two-pound communications satellites that consist of little more than a modified Android smartphone. It's not hard to imagine something similar running behind Google's own satellites.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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