Connecting the Unwired World With Balloons, Satellites, Lasers and Drones

Sept. 3, 2015
New projects are using balloons, drones, lasers and satellites to bring wireless Internet to underserved markets. These initiatives have major implications for where data centers are located and how they’re built and powered.

Data centers are where the Internet lives. But the geography of the Internet will soon be expanding, creating challenges and opportunities for the data center industry. Silicon Valley hopes to bring wireless connectivity to the developing world, using everything from balloons to drones to satellites.

These wireless initiatives have major implications for where data centers are located and how they’re built and powered. They’re backed by some of the deepest pockets around, including Google, Facebook, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Richard Branson. While the timetable for deployment of these systems isn’t yet clear, the support of these tech titans brings the horizon closer than we may imagine.

As new technology brings wireless access to untapped markets, Internet infrastructure will extend to new places, supported by facilities that may look very different than the data centers in existing technology hubs. The benefits could be enormous for both society and business.

Consider the changes the Internet has brought to America in just 20 years. In 1995, the Internet meant dial-up access to read static web pages and post messages on AOL or bulletin boards. In 2015, it means always-on broadband that delivers HD video and e-commerce to smartphones and tablets. A similar evolution lies ahead for many emerging markets.

How will the data center sector sort out this opportunity? At Data Center Frontier, we’re focused on the future of data centers and cloud computing (if you are as well, you’ll want to sign up for our weekly newsletter). We start with an overview of the major players and technologies. Here’s our take on wiring the unwired, and why it matters to you.

The Challenge

There are about 3.2 billion people using the Internet, but that’s just 38 percent of the global population, leaving an unwired population of more than 4 billion. This is primarily a problem in emerging markets, but the FCC estimates that 55 million Americans – about 17 percent of the population – lack access to advanced broadband services.

But the largest opportunities are in underserved markets like Africa, rural India and Indonesia, where local fiber is scarce and Internet access is focused on mobile.

“It is clear that the mobile Internet will play a key role in bringing the next billion users online,” writes the Internet Society. “Mobile Internet has already leap-frogged fixed access in many countries because of limitations in the coverage of the fixed network, and the availability of mobile Internet access significantly outpaces adoption today.”

Facebook, Google and Microsoft are all investing in efforts to boost access in under-served markets. At Facebook, the initiative is supported by the company’s connectivity lab, which is working to deliver wireless Internet via high-altitude solar-powered planes and laser networking technology.

“There are some really neat ways to leverage the science and the physics that we’ve figured out inside the datacenter to potentially help us get people connected to the internet, where we can reduce the cost or increase the capacity by an order of magnitude or more,” says Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering at Facebook.

“The Connectivity Lab team is very focused on the technical challenges of reaching those people who are typically in the more rural, unconnected parts of the world,” he adds. “I think that we need to get them access. … My hope is that we are able to deliver a very rich experience to them, including videos, photos and — some day — virtual reality and all of that stuff. But it’s a multi-, multi-, multi-year challenge, and I don’t see any end in sight right now.”

Balloons: Project Loon

One of the 50-foot tall balloons Google is using in Project look, its initiative to bring wireless Internet access to the world. (Image: Google)

Google describes its Project Loon initiative as “balloon-powered Internet for everyone.” The name reflects the somewhat crazy idea at the heart of the project – using high-altitude balloons 20 miles up in the stratosphere to create an aerial wireless network that can bring high-speed Internet to rural and remote areas.

The balloons are about 50 feet high, and hoist a box that contains circuit boards to control the system, radio antennas to communicate with other balloons and ground stations, and lithium ion batteries. The Loon balloons are equipped with solar panels, which produce about 100 watts of power in full sun, enough to keep Loon’s electronics running while also charging the battery for use at night.

The balloons travel at the edge of space, where Google used software algorithms to guide them through layers of shifting winds. By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to form one large communications network. Earlier this year Google said it has developed a way to pass high-frequency Internet signals from balloon to balloon in midair, creating a mesh network that can connect a large area using a relatively small number of ground stations.

Project Loon may get its first real-world test-drive in the island nation of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Google has agreed to begin deploying Project Loon balloons in March 2016, providing supplemental high-speed connectivity to Internet providers, allowing them to reduce their operating costs.

Solar-Powered Drones: Project Aquila

Facebook’s ambitious effort seeks to build partnerships with wireless providers while developing new technology to deliver wireless Internet access to remote areas. As part of this effort, Facebook has been building prototypes for a solar-powered drone, which can deliver connectivity while soaring high in the stratosphere.

The Aquila planes resemble a giant wing, as wide as a 737 but made of lightweight carbon fiber. When deployed, it will be able to circle a remote region for up to 90 days, beaming connectivity down to people from an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet.

The prototype for Project Aquila, Facebook’s wireless Internet initiative. (Image: Facebook)

Meanwhile, Facebook’s communications team has tested a laser that can deliver data at 10s of Gb per second with precision across 10 miles. Parikh says the technology is “a significant performance breakthrough.”

“We are now starting to test these lasers in real-world conditions,” he reports. “When finished, our laser communications system can be used to connect our aircraft with each other and with the ground, making it possible to create a stratospheric network that can extend to even the remotest regions of the world.”

Facebook notes that its intent is not to operate these networks, but to create viable solutions and partner with mobile operators.

Spectrum White Spaces: Microsoft

Microsoft also has an ambitious initiative to connect unwired areas, but has taken a different tack, focusing on the use of unused spectrum to create powerful low-cost networks. The company is pioneering the concept in Kenya, where Microsoft has teamed with Mawingu Networks, Jamii Telecom Limited and the Kenyan government to deliver solar-powered Internet access and device charging to rural Kenya, where 80 percent of residents have no access to the Internet.

The initative employs unused TV channels (also known as “white space”) to deliver broadband access, services, and applications. Networks and devices using TV white spaces work in much the same way as conventional Wi-Fi, but because TV signals travel over longer distances and can penetrate walls and other obstacles, they require fewer access points to cover the same area.

“A TV white space base station – even manufactured at small volumes – is only one-tenth the cost of an LTE base station,” writes Paul Garnett, Director of Microsoft’s Technology Policy Group, in a blog post. “TV white space transmitters can operate at low power while providing multi-kilometer point-to-multipoint connectivity – meaning it can be powered purely with renewable energy like the sun or the wind. And these technologies can support both high-bandwidth and low-latency applications, such as HD video streaming and Skype video conferencing.”

This video provides an overview of Microsoft’s use of white spaces to bring connectivity to rural Kenya:

Access Satellites: Where Billionaires Duel

While Facebook and Google have brought their technology to the edge of space, there’s plenty of action a few miles higher. There are multiple companies mounting efforts to deliver wireless from space using satellites.

“Satellite technology is now advancing towards a critical point which could make it the predominant ‘leapfrog’ access mechanism for the billions around the world still not online,” writes Patrick Murphy, a technology investor with Universal Music Group. “Building communications infrastructure on the ground in a traditional manner is expensive and time-consuming. Avoiding wires and red tape by beaming straight from the clouds is the quickest way to get to market.”

But doing business in space is expensive, even by data center standards. Google and Facebook both considered satellite wireless initiatives, but were deterred by cost and have reportedly shelved those plans. But a number of deep-pocketed individuals and enterprises remain. Most of these projects focus on low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites rather than the geostationary orbits used by many communications satellites. LEO satellites have smaller wireless footprints, but can be deployed in networks to provide broader coverage.

Here’s a look at the leading players:

  • SpaceX: Billionaire Elon Musk’s space exploration company has announced plans to deploy 4,000 satellites in low-earth orbit “We’re really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the Internet in space,” Musk said of the initiative. As a pioneer in low-cost launch vehicles, SpaceX is perhaps the most intriguing play, and has attracted $1 billion in backing from Google and Fidelity InVestments. In an FCC filing, SpaceX describes a plan to launch six to eight satellites next year to begin testing for “a large constellation of small satellites for low-latency, worldwide, high-capacity Internet service in the near future.”
  • OneWeb: OneWeb is founded by satellite pioneer Greg Wyler, and recently raised $500 million in funding from a consortium including Qualcomm, Airbus, Coca-Cola, several satellite makers and Branson’s Virgin Group, which will provide the launch vehicles. “Our vision is to make the Internet affordable for everyone, connecting remote areas to rest of the world and helping to raise living standards and prosperity in some of the poorest regions today,” said Branson. “We believe that OneWeb, together with Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne satellite launch system, has the capability to make this a reality.” OneWeb plans a network of 648 satellites in low-earth orbit about 500 to 600 miles up. OneWeb is reportedly in the process of raising an additional $2.5 billion.
  • O3b Networks: The incumbent in the space wireless world is O3b, which uses medium-earth orbit (MEO) satellites about 5,000 miles above the earth. The company has deployed an initial group of satellites that can provide coverage to 180 countries, and has 35 customers, including networks in many island nations such as the Cook Islands, American Samoa, Micronesia and Papua New Guinea. O3b’s investors include Google, Allen & Company, Northbridge Venture Partners and HSBC.

There’s also active investment in satellite antennas and ground stations. Bill Gates is among the backers of Kymeta, which focuses on improved antenna technology to improvfe satellite access, while Endaga is targeting low-cost facilities that can work in earth’s remotest areas.

The Road Ahead

So what does this mean for data center operators? It’s early to say, but some industry observers see opportunities in the satellite wireless projects.

“For data center operators, there’s a short-term and longer term play,” writes Doug Mohney at Green Data Center News. “The short-term play is working with satellite operators to provide cloud services for all the information they want to store and analyze. Longer-term, properly engineered MEO/LEO-based constellations will offer the ability for northern latitude green data centers to more directly reach customers around the equator and in areas not currently served by fiber.

“A smart move for satellite operators would be to establish relationships with data centers, building software in the cloud, spinning it up when needed, storing data in multiple locations for redundancy and faster local access,” Mohney adds. “The industry recognizes satellites have generated a lot of raw data, but processing through it all has been more of an afterthought in the past.”

In some cases, improved wireless access may pave the way for traditional fiber access, enabling a business case that will support investment. But in many other scenarios, wireless-first Internet will require innovation to enable low-cost infrastructure.

Lean construction techniques, including modular designs and pre-fabricated enclosures, are likely to play a large role in these new markets.

An example of this can be seen in the success of Flexenclosure, which specializes in pre-fab data center infrastructure that can be deployed on rooftops and parking garages and powered by solar arrays. The company’s systems have been deployed by telecom operators in the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Nigeria, Myanmar and Mexico.

We’ll be tracking this trend at Data Center Frontier. If you’re developing solutions for the wireless-first market, get in touch with us.

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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