We’ve spoken briefly about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plans to provide internet to the world. His worldwide connectivity plan will send internet-beaming drones into the stratosphere, which would makes wireless internet accessible to the billions of people around the world who are still unconnected. He believes that this is a key step in helping to end extreme poverty in developing countries. Whether or not worldwide connectivity is a solution to poverty, as it turns out, Facebook is actually going to have some competition when it comes to being the first to beam the internet down from the stratosphere. Internet mogul Google is in the race as well, and they may actually have a head start.

Project Loon

While Facebook’s drones are still in development and will need hundreds of hours of test flights before officially being launched, Google has been sending their internet balloons into the sky since June 2013 under the name of Project Loon. According to Mike Cassidy, vice president of the project, they’ve already flown nearly 1,000 balloons, with one of the balloons circling the world 19 times. Here’s how it works:

  1. The balloons are sent 12 miles into the stratosphere.
  2. Embedded software moves the balloons up or down to find the right winds to direct them into the desired positions.
  3. Each balloons beams an internet connection down to antennas on the ground using radio waves.

Google’s goal with these balloons is to create a circular sequence, so once one balloon goes out of range, another will take its place, providing any specified area with a continuous internet connection.


Laser Beams vs. Radio Waves

Facebook’s drones would rely on advanced laser technology to quickly communicate between the different drones and provide internet connections to the earth below. Google’s balloons, on the other hand, would rely solely on radio frequencies to transmit data and provide the internet connection. So which is better? Well, each technique has its benefits and drawbacks. As Cassidy explained, “Radio technology is generally a more developed technology than freespace optical communication. It’s been around longer, the components are typically less expensive.” This means that Google’s balloons don’t have to experiment with new technology to find something that is effective. In fact, they’ve already had success with sending information between balloons at a transfer rate of 500 megabits per second. But that’s a mere fraction of the speed that Facebook believes their drones will be able to accomplish. With laser technology, they believe they will be able to establish connections with transfer rates of tens or possibly hundreds of gigabits per second. However, the technology will need a lot more testing before it’s ready for a test run. In the meantime, radio waves seem to be working.


The Great Drone Race

While Google’s Loon Project seems to be having some success, it’s not the only technology they’re exploring in terms of beaming internet from the stratosphere. In 2014, Google purchased the drone company Titan Aerospace, and have acknowledged that the purchase is aimed at helping them in their internet connectivity efforts. However, they have been very tight-lipped about the project, and so little is known about their progress in this regard. But whether the internet comes from Google’s balloons or drones, or Facebook’s drones, it seems that millions more people will be connected to the internet in just a few years. With so many new users online, and the ever-increasing reliance upon technology, it’s becoming more important than ever to be connected. So if you’re not working and sharing data via the internet, now is the time to start.