Facebook looks to drones, lasers and satellites for Internet access

Posted at 1:00 PM, Mar 28, 2014

(CNN) — Two thirds of the world population does not have Internet access. Facebook already has more than a billion users on its service, but before it can sign up the rest of world it needs to get them online.

The social media company announced a new step in its ambitious plan to bring affordable, basic Internet access to “every person in the world.” Facebook’s new Connectivity Lab will research and test experimental technology including drones, satellites and lasers to spread the reach of the Internet to isolated locations that currently do not have Internet.

“We’ve been working on ways to beam Internet to people from the sky,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new effort.

Last year, Facebook announced, a coalition of major tech companies working together to lower barriers to Internet access using more traditional methods, such as making it cheaper to get Internet on cell phones. Those efforts have been responsible for getting 3 million more people online, according to Zuckerberg.

This new initiative focuses on experimenting with new technology. The group is working with drones that can stay in the air for months at a time, bringing Internet connections to suburban areas. In more rural spots, satellites will be tested as a way to beam connections to the people on the ground. The group will attempt to make speedier long distance connections using invisible infrared laser beams.

The developers who keep redesigning your Facebook news feed will not be dabbling in satellites and drones. Facebook has brought on aerospace experts from NASA and the team who built the Zephyr solar-powered drone.

Internet access is a cause major technology companies can easily get behind. It’s a smart business investment that doubles as a charitable cause.

Google announced plans to tackle the issue last summer with its own ambitious Project Loon. Instead of drones, the company is testing giant balloons that travel in the earth’s stratosphere for 100 days at a time. Using specialized antennas, the balloons will deliver Internet at 3G speeds.

Both companies frame their plans to bring the Internet to the entire world as altruistic, not as a land grab. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates dismissed some of these efforts in an interview with Bloomberg in 2013, saying “when a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”

In many of the world’s most remote areas, poverty is a more pressing concern than Internet connectivity. People cannot afford electricity or clean water, let alone phones. However, humanitarian organizations have been pushing for more access in these remote areas to improve the efficiency of aid work. For example, it would make it easier to set up remote health care stations in situations where the nearest doctors or hospitals are hours or days away.

In countries where the Internet is already more widespread, unfettered access allows for freedom of speech and expression. So much so that the United Nations declared access to the Internet a basic human right in 2011. Governments can still censor or filter access to control what information is disseminated, as the Turkish government is doing with its recent attempts to block Twitter and YouTube.

For now, the Connectivity Lab is focusing on the technical challenges of delivering the Internet to geographically tricky spots. Eventually, low cost Internet and cell phone use could spread to the populations in these areas and when it does, maybe they’ll sign up for Facebook.