Worldwide WiFi: closing the digital loop

In the race to create a connected world, technology giants are developing innovative solutions that will shape the way we access the internet

Today it’s hard to imagine a world without the internet but, astonishingly, two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have online access.

Aware that remote and underserved areas need bringing into the digital loop, and that infrastructure used elsewhere, such as fibre-optic cables and cell towers, can be a challenge to install cost-effectively in remote locations, tech giants such as Facebook and Google are seeking to address the issue.

Facebook’s solar-powered Aquila plane delivers radio internet coverage using laser technology. Developed as part of the company's Internet.org non-profit arm, the plane when deployed, will be able to circle a remote region for up to 90 days, beaming connectivity down to people from as high as 90,000 feet.

Facebook Director of Engineering Laser Communications Hamid Hemmati says that by delivering internet access to millions of people in remote areas, the Aquila plane could transform communities. “When you bring a road to a rural area, it always improves their lives. Similarly when you bring information into a place it will really improve their livelihood”.

Elsewhere, Google is exploring high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere as a solution.

The idea behind ‘Project Loon’ is that instead of spending billions of dollars routing fibre-optic cables through the ground, Google will put the internet 12 miles above the Earth, beaming down the connection to remote communities.

Google Project Loon
Google's Project Loon is set to change the future for residents in rural, underserved communitiesImage: Doug Coldwell

As project head Mike Cassidy explains, “Carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, we hope to beam internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster.

“As a result, balloons could become an option for connecting rural, remote and underserved areas, and for helping with communications after natural disasters”.

The project is already well on its way to getting off the ground, with the Sri Lankan government partnering with Google to deploy the technology. Currently, only one in five people in Sri Lanka is connected, but with the help of Google’s balloon-based network 100 per cent of residents will be almost immediately plugged in.

The idea behind ‘Project Loon’ is that instead of spending billions of dollars routing fibre-optic cables through the ground, Google will put the internet 12 miles above the Earth, beaming down the connection to remote communities

It is a major breakthrough for many remote countries with difficult terrain, where the cost of the internet can outweigh an individual’s livelihood.

“There are many terrestrial challenges to internet connectivity – jungles, archipelagos, mountains. There are also major cost challenges. Right now, for example, in most of the countries in the southern hemisphere, the cost of an internet connection is more than a month’s income,” says Cassidy.

Meanwhile, in line with its goal to achieve ‘smart city’ status, Dubai has devised an innovative – and sustainable – way for citizens to access the internet, wherever they may be.

Dubbed ‘Smart Palms’, six-metre artificial trees, running entirely from solar power, will provide beach goers with free high-speed WiFi, multiple charging stations, weather updates and local city information.

Viktor Nelepa, CEO of D Idea Media, the company behind the Smart Palm, says the devices serve 21st-century society’s need to access information at all times. “Everyone needs to be connected, to be aware of their surroundings, to be informed, to be safe and secure and to power their devices. We all know the importance and relevance of information which is both dynamic and accurate.”

The palms are set to be rolled out across 103 locations, providing internet access to the 70 million visitors that visit Dubai’s parks and beaches. Up to 50 users at a time will be able to access the high-speed WiFi.

'Everyone needs to be connected, to be aware of their surroundings, to be informed, to be safe and secure and to power their devices. We all know the importance and relevance of information which is both dynamic and accurate'

Viktor Nelepa, CEO, D Idea Media

“We have created a modern smart solution using the latest technology in a traditional, ethnic Arabic cultural design,” says Nelepa.