The Weird Future of Internet Access

Getting everyone on the web will involve balloons, drones, and lasers

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It’s 2015 and you can read about the future as much as you like, collect cat GIFs until your heart explodes, and watch porn from sunrise to sunset. Yet over 4 billion people in the world still don’t have regular internet access. How will we — “we” being massive companies that need more users to sustain growth — deliver the web to the 57 percent of humans living in a wifi coldspot?

Most people scold you if they think you’ve got your head in the clouds, but that’s actually how some techies are approaching this problem. The key to getting the internet to even the most remote communities will be the skies — and using some pretty nifty technologies to beam it back down to Earth. Here are the five most promising technologies being used to that end


Delivering internet access via satellite isn’t very new. What is new is how ambitious people are exploring this technology. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are looking to launch an array of satellites up into Earth’s orbit in 2016 and get people living in sub-Saharan African countries connected to the web. Richard Branson’s been investing in OneWeb, a company with plans to create “advanced micro-satellites” that help people get internet access. Elon Musk has already voiced his own desire to blanket the earth in a cloud of wifi.

Why are satellites so in vogue for internet entrepreneurs right now? Although broadband internet via satellite is somewhat slow, it’s still one of the only ways to deliver internet access to people in remote areas. The costs to build and launch a satellite into Earth’s orbit continue to fall — and will fall even more dramatically when companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX ramp up their commercial satellite delivery services.


Satellites might be getting cheaper, but nothing is as cost effective as a helium balloon, made of cheap materials and eliminating the need to launch rockets. Leave it to Google to pioneer this technology. The $350 billion tech company is working on Project Loon to deliver 3G internet to rural villages around the world. They’ve just signed an agreement with Sri Lanka that will make the island nation the first test subjects for web access via high altitude balloons.

Of course, balloons sitting 70,000 feet up in the air have to come down at some point, and would need to be replaced after just a few months. And all hell breaks loose during a bad weather event. But if Sri Lankans decide they can cope and Loon turns out to be a cheap alternative to satellites, expect Google to begin rolling it out for other remote regions of the world before the end of 2016.


From photography to agriculture, drones are creeping into every part of our lives. Naturally they would find a way into our internet. Facebook’s Connectivity Lab wants to develop a fleet of solar-powered drones that can zip around web-less communities and deliver internet access with more mobility and efficiency than either satellites or balloons. A drone could avoid adverse weather conditions and deliver internet more selectively — when it’s actually wanted — instead of wasting energy by hanging around in a stationary position 24/7.

So far, the drones Facebook has been testing have been able to stay up in the air for 90 days straight just using energy from the sun. Google is also looking to jump into the drone game, having made a request last month with the FCC to test internet-delivering drones over New Mexico.


And how exactly are we going to get internet from the literal clouds to the ground below? Lasers might be one way. The telecommunications applications of lasers are still pretty new, but it’s getting a lot attention — especially from Facebook for its internet-via-drone schemes. The company claims it will be able to deliver speeds as high as 10 gigabytes per second from over 10 miles away.

The technology is still in its infancy, but with everything else mentioned in this article, internet by laser hardly seems crazy.


Stands for wifi that’s delivered though visible or infrared light (though it shouldn’t be confused for lasers). Li-Fi transmitted internet would actually work as a ground-operated technology for facilitating internet access. Li-Fi might actually make most sense for helping connect Internet of Things devices together in a local space.

Why would anyone choose Li-FI over actual wifi — which can, you know, move through walls and whatnot? That’s actually precisely the point — Li-Fi can be directed in a very specific path, preventing other devices or users from getting access to that network and being more resistant to hackers or users with nefarious plans.