At Google, internet by drone is old hat. The Silicon Valley giant now plans to launch a multibillion-dollar fleet of low-orbiting satellites which could vastly expand the reach of the internet. This move would ensure that emerging markets will view Google as the designated portal to the internet and enable Google’s expanding network of driverless cars and other devices to connect to the web even in the remotest areas. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Details remain in flux, the people said, but the project will start with 180 small, high-capacity satellites orbiting the earth at lower altitudes than traditional satellites, and then could expand. […]O3b, in which Google was an early investor, has been working on providing broadband Internet connectivity from satellites weighing about 1,500 pounds each. […]Google hopes to cover the entire globe with more, but smaller, satellites weighing less than 250 pounds, the people familiar with the project said.
The world’s insatiable thirst for internet access had already inspired Google work on providing internet connections via drones and high-altitude balloons. The Journal estimates that the actual launching of the satellites may cost as little as $600 million, and that this might be the best way to reach remote regions. In any event, it’s clear that Google will be trying every possible technology, on the grounds that, “Even if one or more projects don’t succeed, [the company] can often use what it learned in other areas.”Contrast this to the government, which has already lent $5 billion, and may soon lend $24 billion more, to traditional cable companies so they can lay broadband in rural areas—despite the fact that 95-98 percent of the country already has access to high-speed internet. “Rural Broadband” champions like Mayor Ron Littlefield trumpet the wiring of Chattanooga, Tennessee, as proof that federally subsidized, municipally managed broadband works effectively. The ten-year “National Broadband Plan” is the product of outmoded, mid-20th-century thinking, and it uses technology that will be obsolete as well as overpriced by 2020. Google is reaching for the stars; D.C. is reaching for a longer extension cord.Businesses like Google are not only more capable of providing in-demand services than the government; they are also far better at creating new services, some of which consumers currently can hardly imagine. As TechCrunch points out, Google’s plans to connect objects as much as people. This internet from the heavens will integrate everything from your Nest heater in the Tetons to your driverless car in the Australian Outback. Facebook is racing ahead with rival projects, as each company strives to be the portal through which the Third World enters the web. The bureaucracy continues to plod behind the true pace of technological change. It’s the one tortoise that will never overtake the hare.