In this article, we’ll be discussing why global internet connectivity is essential ensuring a more prosperous future for all and to assure in many of the new technologies in development today, as well as the ongoing and future initiatives to make this hyper-connected future a reality – sooner than many think. There’s no doubt that connectivity to the internet has been a driving force in shaping our planet over the past few decades. As the web has evolved so have the ways we interact with our surroundings, purchase products, connect to our peers, and much more. Let’s take a look at the evolution of the web over the years to present-day, as it will provide a critical background understanding of why global connectivity is going to be essential in the coming years.
In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee made a proposal for an information management system to assist in keeping track of research at CERN and began working on it as a side project. He began this project because computers back then had no real way to efficiently communicate data between each other, as each PC stored information in different data formats and file systems. His dream was to create a common unified information space where people could communicate by sharing information together. Less than 18 months later after successful demonstrations, this dream evolved into reality with the world wide web.
It went live to the public in 1991 and also marked the beginnings web 1.0, also referred to as a read-only web. We’re riding on the internet! Cyberspace, set free, hello virtual reality! Originally, the web consisted of only static text pages hyperlinked together, but as the years progressed to the 2000s, many features began to be realized such as search engines like Google and Yahoo to find data as well as file sharing an email to send data.
Early start of Web 2.0
A pivotal turning point for adoption of the web in this generation was e-commerce, also known as shopping cart applications. The largest online retailer today, Amazon, was launched as an online book store as well as various other sites like eBay to auction items, PayPal to process payments, Zappos an online retailer and countless others, as businesses and startup companies began to capitalize on the economic value of having an online presence to reach and advertise to customers.
However, the influx of companies trying to establish an online presence led to sky-high valuations with no basis of revenues or future plans to sustain growth, creating the dot-com bubble. The dot-com crash in 2000, wiped out many web 1.0 companies with only the strongest surviving, including two of the largest tech giants today: Amazon and Google. It also correlates with the beginnings of web 2.0, also referred to as the writable or interactive web. The interactivity that web 2.0 has introduced has been the primary factor for the massive adoption of the web. Whereas, when applied to the majority of people, web 1.0 was primarily used for consuming data, web 2.0 is centered around people producing data and taking on more of a participatory role on the internet.
The era of Web 2.0
We see this with the emergence of wikis and blogs in the early 2000s, allowing anyone to contribute to topics or write about things they are passionate about. As well as, by far the most important technology of web 2.0, combining its core pillars, interactivity and content production, social media. Ranging from the original pioneers, Friendster and MySpace, to the largest platforms today: YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and many others constantly emerging, these tools fulfill Berner’s dream and harness the true power of the internet, connectivity. Web 2.0 is really the beginning of collaborative problem-solving using the internet and can be defined as any technology that allows users to collaborate or interact with a website. Most sites on the internet today are web 2.0 sites. We are currently at the peak of web 2.0, whether as a company or an individual, the value of establishing an online presence and brand has never been higher. We can also observe this through the startup boom – new companies are sprouting up every day, in a race to produce the most interactive, elegant web apps that will impact as many people as possible, some examples being: Tinder a dating platform, Uber a transportation platform and Airbnb housing platform.
All these factors are contributing to the massive amounts of data being produced by individuals and companies, and the continual release of internet-connected devices will only add to this collective pool of data. The problem with our rate of growth of data up to this point is that all data on the web has been isolated. Isolated in the sense that even though web technologies have been about connecting content and allowing people to interact and collaborate, the systems connecting the content have no knowledge about the relationships between the information they are connecting. This is where web 3.0 comes into play, also referred to as semantic or executable web.
Web 3.0 has been discussed among computer scientists from as early as 2007, with Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the internet, being one of the largest advocates for it. Whereas the transition between web 1.0 and 2.0 was easy to recognize, the transition to web 3.0 has been much more difficult for the average internet user to observe, as much of the work is ongoing behind the scenes. With the primary purpose of better optimization of web 2.0 applications and the structure, the web is built upon in general. From computers just regurgitating data, the focus of this new generation of the web will be making them understand the data on the web and the correlations between different sets of data. These correlations will create context, and in turn, context gives meaning to the information we see. Also, while the internet has been designed for humans, it has been much more difficult to get machines to interact efficiently with each other, thus hindering the progress on various innovations such as the Internet of Things. Web 3.0 is critical in getting these various devices to begin to communicate more efficiently, thereby assisting further in the correlations that can be made between various sets of data.
Web 3.0 Applications and Future
Web 3.0 is starting to become more prevalent as of late due to the mainstream attention AI is starting to receive, one of the fields that will benefit the most from a connected web of information with meaningful context. We can further see this through AI chatbots on websites, more in-depth search results from search engines as well as the increasing complexity of personal assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant. With the increasing number of internet-connected devices, web 3.0 will continually grow as a global database, slowly being able to utilize more and more of all the collective knowledge on the internet. Web 2.0 squared, WebOS, the immersive web, the smart web, the symbiotic web – all names given to the evolving idea of web 4.0. One thing is for certain, as web 3.0 evolves the transition to web 4.0 will be as significant as the jump from the pre-internet era to web 1.0 and assure in advances in technology such as AI, VR, AR, the Internet of Things and countless others at an exponential pace.
The Open Web Future
From companies to communities, portals to platforms, advertising to word of the mouth, the list can go on – the web has changed the way our societies function and will continue to impact them as it evolves. Countries that deploy an open web have seen great levels of economic prosperity due to the increasing number of innovations and the advent of e-commerce 2.0, in which as more mobile devices have come online, we have seen an increasing number of transactions as well as a paradigm shift in how we purchase our products, as seen by the increasing number of physical retailers closing down. Perhaps the most telling expression of the power of the internet is its transformation of social and political movements. Messages no longer flow from the few the many, as social media matures messages are now flowing from the many to the many with high levels of interactivity. This has led to networked social media movements becoming more prevalent, such as the Arab Springs revolutions against dictatorships to the most recent examples of the political unrest in America with much being live-streamed and actively talked about throughout social media.
Future of Global Internet
From the women’s march to the science march, and the political discussions going on across the web – online and particularly wireless communications have helped social movements pose more of a challenge to state power, invoking further change and a platform for discussion between the majority of the population. However, in order to become a truly hyper-connected society and unlock the full potential of the human race will require full-scale global internet connectivity. We’ve seen how the innovations of a few can impact the many, which is equally applicable to the rest of the world. Hardship breeds innovation and giving everyone the basic means to connect to the infinite knowledge of the web will only increase our rate of innovation, especially with the advances to come with web 3.0 and 4.0.
This picture represents the population density of our planet, and this one the density of internet-connected devices across the planet. This visual representation is really powerful in showing how abysmal the connections to the internet many across the planet have compared to the density of population and their locations. Some of the most sparsely connected areas in comparison to the population being: most of Africa, India, China, and many parts of the Middle East. Currently, roughly 47 to 48% of the world is connected to the internet in comparison to current population growth. It was expected that 50% of the world will come online by mid-2018 to early-2019. As seen in this graph, at our current rate of growth of world population and internet-connected users, we should see the majority of the planet connected to the internet between 2023 to 2028, however, internet connectivity is beginning to slow, with many claiming we’ve reached a saturation point and some estimates claiming it to be as late as 2035 and onwards before we see a connected global society.
Global Internet Connectivity Initiatives
This next picture provides a visual representation of the types of cellular connections users have based on location. As you can see, most of the connected world only have access to 3G networks and even more with access just to 2G. Newer generation 4G networks and eventually 5G will be essential in providing the types of speed and latency web 3.0 and 4.0 applications will require. As well as this, wireless infrastructure in many rural locations is expensive to install and therefore translates to telecommunications companies not finding it worthwhile to build the infrastructure or expensive data plans, which is much less of a priority when comparing it to basic needs such as food and water. So, in other words, even at our current rate of connectivity, it won’t positively affect the majority of the world unless we provide the right types of connections at affordable price points so that more can start utilizing the full potential of the internet and the technological benefits that come with it. To combat this saturation of growth, provide the right types of connections, and solve the other issues stated, global internet connectivity initiatives will be needed. With global connectivity, the innovations of a few will impact the many, economic prosperity, better education and healthcare will come to developing nations and we can further sociopolitical discussions in troubled regions to better benefit them and overthrow the corrupt governments that run them.
The initiatives we will discuss in the next two sections will create a global village, with every person on the planet being able to communicate two-way with every other person on the planet. The first set of global connectivity initiatives we’ll look at are Earth-based, more specifically – stratosphere based. Google’s bid to bring internet to the world, dubbed, Project Loon, is the closest initiative to being commercially deployed and has been in the works since as early as 2011 under Googles’ research and development company, X. As suggested by the name, Google wants to use high-altitude balloons to bring the internet to the world.
These balloons will operate in the stratosphere at altitudes varying between 18 to 25 kilometers, the reason this region of the atmosphere was chosen is that there is above all weather events, wildlife, the altitude planes fly and most importantly, the wind patterns. The stratosphere has many layers of wind, with each layer having wind travel in different speeds and in different directions, as well as this, winds at these altitudes have minimal turbulence and travel in predictable directions and speeds. As testing of the balloons has advanced, Google has been able to model and predict the seasonal, longitudinal and latitudinal variations in the wind with high degrees of accuracy through machine learning algorithms, in other words, they can use the different directions and speeds of wind to navigate. By adjusting the volume and density of the gas used in the balloons, they can send them up or down in the direction they want to travel at. With the increasing degree of accuracy in navigation, the balloons are able to coordinate amongst each other to cluster in locations that require a connection, with each balloon being able to cover approximately 5000 square kilometers.
As a visual representation, let’s call this location A, which no longer has a high density of devices requesting connection but another location is starting to, the balloons will coordinate amongst themselves and begin to move more of the network over there. Each balloon is equipped with a transceiver to transmit connectivity from ground stations, across the balloon network, and to devices, solar panels to power equipment during the day and to transfer energy to the battery for use at night, a parachute that deploys when the balloon is returned to the surface and the flight capsule, the brains of the system. Since the atmosphere is so thin in the stratosphere, the technology is shielded to prevent destruction from UV rays and also insulated to withstand the cold temperatures, up to negative 90 degrees Celsius, at those altitudes. As well as this, the balloons are specially manufactured and stitched to withstand the cold temperatures. To test these environmental conditions, Google has essentially built a warehouse refrigerator to gather data about how these systems will behave in extreme scenarios. Currently, each balloon can operate for approximately 100 days without returning to the surface, however, strides are being made to increase this time.
To bring connectivity to all the devices in a particular location, all that is required is one balloon to establish a connection with a ground station, which then propagates through the balloon network. For example, a connection to a base station in the wealthier parts of Africa such as Johannesburg will be able to provide a connection to the majority of Africa through the loon network. To propagate the signal, the balloons, often a few hundred kilometers apart aim precisely at each other through the use of laser technology. Then this signal can be sent to individual devices or even residences by connecting to Google’s small cell device. Check out this demonstration from New Zealand to see the Loon in action: I run a small farm. When I’m using the internet the first thing I’ll check is the weather to see if my sheep are going to dry out. At the moment the wools not dry, so I’m just looking for a window so I can plan my week. We’ve gone through a number of different internet providers to try and get reliable internet. It was so slow that we had to click on a page and go and find something to do for 10 minutes. So, could you give us a quick update on the launch? Having a team from Google on our farm to trial this for the first time has been being really exciting. Alright, coming out: three, two, one, straight up, straight up.
Ballons Powered Internet for Everyone
Starting today, we’re watching a few dozen balloons so that 50 testers right here in the Christchurch area can get online through this experimental balloon network. Bingo and that were fast too. To be the first person to do this a little bit cool as well. Having access to the internet can change lives and there are five billion people on the earth that aren’t reached. Speeds in 2013 ranged at only 1 to 2 megabits per second, and as of late range between 5 to 25 megabits per second, with generally 10 megabits per second stable. In other words, the speeds being achieved are top 3G speeds or on the low end of 4G LTE speeds. As we’ll explore later in the section, these speeds will continually improve in the future. The true beauty in Google’s bid for bringing the internet to the planet is its affordability and ease of deployment. Using their custom-built auto launchers, which are designed to safely and reliably launch balloons at scale, a new balloon can be added to the Loon network every 30 minutes. Recovery is as simple as coordinating a drop point in a sparsely populated location and releasing the gas keeping the balloon aloft. As of recently, sightings of the balloons are starting to increase, ranging from Canada, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and more. Additionally, Project Loon is demonstrating to the world how powerful a tool global connectivity is currently, because of the Peru floods and the aftermath now. Thousands are able to connect to the internet and send messages to family and friends while the balloons have been in the air.
Exemplifying the global connectivity will also play a critical role in disaster relief efforts in the future. Through additional partnerships with telecommunication providers, as well as Google’s end goal to have thousands of balloons in the air, by 2020, many will finally be able to access basic LTE speeds. These speeds will be life-changing for the majority of the world’s population with only 2G speeds or no connection at all to the internet. Facebook’s initiative to bring global internet connectivity is titled, Project Aquila, and has been in development since 2014. Aquila is a solar-powered drone and like Google’s Loons will reside in the stratosphere between 18 to 28 kilometers. Aquila has the wingspan of a Boeing 737, 34 meters, and only weighs about 1,000 pounds – or the average weight of a grand piano. This lightweight is achieved due to the carbon fiber composite the craft is made from which is three times as strong as steel and lighter than aluminum. Most of the weight comes from the high energy batteries the drone has to carry, which also leads to issues of the load Aquilas’ flexible wings can support.
During the day Aquila will fly at 28 kilometers to maximize the amount of energy its solar cells can capture and store. At night, utilizing its lift-to-drag ratio due to its large wingspan and low weight, Aquila will gradually glide down to 18 kilometers due to gravitational potential energy. This will limit the amount of energy Aquila consumes at night at only 5,000 watts or the energy of three hair dryers. Facebook still has some major obstacles to overcome:
1) Most of Aquila’s weight comes from its high-energy batteries, which is a problem exuberated due to the fact that it’s an additional load for its flexible wings to carry.
2) At the altitudes Aquila flies at, the air density, temperature, and wind speeds can vary.
Aquila has to be designed to handle these changes and make sure its body can support the stress applied. Continued advances in materials engineering, a field becoming more active due to advances in nanoengineering, will be needed to make the batteries lighter as well as make the materials the craft is made from stronger to be able to withstand the stresses applied to them. Once these issues are solved Facebook plans to keep their drones in the air for three months at a time. In order to provide internet connectivity to large areas, a ground station will transmit a signal to a mother aircraft, which will then be propagated across the drone network. The mode of propagation Facebook is using is by far the most advanced and game-changing aspect of their initiative, high energy lasers, which can take a fiber connection from the ground and propagate it through the drone network. The lasers and optical receivers Facebook is developing will improve upon current data rates by as much as 10 times, with the lasers accurate enough to hit a dime more than 17 kilometers away while in motion: People have been using light to communicate and send messages for a long, long time. We turn the beam on and off, but you do that billion of times a second.
At Facebook we are working on advancing the state of the art by at least a factor of 10 to 100, it poses challenges. We try to hit a dime from a couple of miles away, so that’s how accurate we need to point the beam to the target. In the 11 meter space, we have here in the lab, we’re simulating 40-kilometer propagation in the atmosphere. Each drone will have an approximate coverage area between 4500 to 7500 square kilometers providing speeds up to 10 gigabits per second due to the enhanced optical technology they will be using. The drones will also have the ability to propagate either LTE or Wi-Fi signals with upgradeability in the future as networks demand.
Recently, less than a year ago, Aquila had its first successful test flight, the original mission was meant to keep it aloft for 30 minutes, but it ended up staying up for 96 minutes to collect more data. It ends up crashing on its landing attempt as a wing snapped off due to a structural failure caused by winds faster than the prototype was designed to handle. However, it is to be noted that this result was expected by Facebook engineers. Facebook still has some ways to go before the technology can be commercially viable and economically feasible, with estimated deployment between 2020 to 2022, but once commercially deployed will be game-changing due to the high speeds and low latencies it will provide across the globe compared to other options for many people. With Google and Facebook being some of the largest technology companies on the market today, it’s no surprise they’re leading the charge on the race to global connectivity. Google wants to provide basic internet access across the world at scale, while Facebook’s method being more complex is about bringing high-speed access to the world. Both Project Loon and Aquila will be essential in their own rights to bring connectivity to the planet and allow everyone to access the power and knowledge of the evolving web. It is also worth noting that as the year’s progress and 5G infrastructure start the deployment, that these initiatives, especially Facebook, will see upgrades to technologies that can interface with 5G networks and improve speeds and latencies even further. While these Earth-based solutions will be great at providing connectivity in targeted locations, the next few initiatives we’ll be discussing aim to bring connectivity wherever you are on the planet. The next few initiatives we’ll be discussing are based in space, more specifically – low and mid-Earth orbit through the use of satellite constellations.
Proof of Concept
To communicate to the ground, most of these initiatives will be using either the 12 to 18 gigahertz KU, 26 to 40 gigahertz KA or 40 to 75 gigahertz V bands. These spectrums are classified as millimeter waves, and as the frequency that satellites use gets higher, it correlates to smaller antennas equating to the ability to launch microsatellites. In the vacuum of space communication using millimeter waves isn’t an issue, but they are susceptible to attenuation by weather events and other obstacles once they enter the lower atmosphere.
Back on topic, satellite constellations to provide internet connectivity may seem like a far-fetched idea, but the approach has been validated on the successes of two companies that have been working on the solution for a few years now, Iridium and ViaSat. Viasat instead of using a satellite constellation as the internet delivery method uses just a single high bandwidth satellite which can support many users, dubbed the ViaSat-1, which was launched into orbit in 2011. This satellite is limited to coverage for just US consumers, and has a bandwidth capacity of 140 gigabits per second, with the ability to support 1 million users at a time with speeds up to 25 megabits per second. This year, the ViaSat-2 will be launched, proceeded in 2020 by the launch of 2 ViaSat-3s in partnership with Boeing. These satellites in orbit are aimed to provide global coverage, with a capacity of 1 terabyte per second with speeds for individuals up to 100 megabits per second. Iridium has been launching satellite constellations to provide communication services since the late 90s and is composed of 66 satellites participating in active global coverage. Currently, they are launching their newest constellation the Iridium Next, which will provide speeds of 1.4 megabits per second for their target demographic of journalists, explorers, and military units. Both companies prove satellites as a means for global internet connectivity are possible and if implemented properly, economically feasible. Through the use of single high bandwidth satellites, ViaSat can provide fast speeds but has a downfall of less devices able to connect to the network. Inversely, through the use of satellite constellations, many devices can connect to the network but speeds are much slower.
The next few initiatives we’ll be looking at are aimed at providing a solution to these issues, combining the best parts of these two initiatives. SpaceX will be launching the Iridium Next satellites, with some sent to orbit already earlier this year as well as the ViaSat-3 satellites in the future, they also plan to launch a satellite constellation of their own, the largest announced of any companies so far. To bring fast speeds, low latencies and the ability to add many devices will require much larger satellite constellations, composed of thousands of satellites. SpaceX plans to send 12,000 to complete its global constellation, 4,500 and the KU and KA bands, and 7500 in the V band. What differentiates SpaceX from other companies looking to launch satellites as a means for global connectivity, is that they have the infrastructure to do so, with the Falcon-9 and soon to be ready Falcon Heavy.
This greatly increases the economic feasibility of satellites as a means of connectivity. Due to the sheer number of satellites and the low Earth orbit SpaceX has opted for, they will solve one of the biggest issues with current satellite-based internet solutions, latency. SpaceX will reduce the average latencies from 600 milliseconds to between 25 to 35 milliseconds once the full chain is active with speeds up to 1 gigabit per second. The satellites will connect to terminals the size of a pizza box back on the surface, which can be mounted by users anywhere as long as they can see the sky. With launches expected to start in 2019, at first SpaceX satellites will cover North America, to generate revenue for the gradual expansion of the chain up until 2024 to provide global coverage. Their satellite manufacturing facility in Washington has produced test flight-ready satellites, the MicroSat-1a and 1b, which hopes of launching them later this year, 2017.
SpaceX may very well be the first company to provide truly global wireless coverage with next-generation speeds and latencies, which can be constantly upgraded as new satellites are swapped and added to the constellation. Beyond Earth, SpaceX will be using the satellite constellation as a proof of concept for communication systems that will one day be used at Mars! As seen in this FCC approvals chart, SpaceX currently has the largest planned satellite constellation, however, there are two other large players entering the race, OneWeb and Boeing. OneWeb will send approximately 2,700 satellites into low and mid-Earth orbit, with plans to start launching the first 720 in 2019. OneWeb CEO, Greg Wyler, has shown his ability to run a successful satellite broadband-based company, with his founding of O3B Networks. O3B Networks is composed of 12 satellites, with plans to bring the constellation to 24 by 2019, and provides internet access to small island chains and cruise ships, they are the largest ISP in the Pacific. O3B provides an average latency of 200 milliseconds with connectivity speeds over 500 megabits per second.
On the other hand, OneWeb with its large satellite constellation having a capacity of 4.2 terabits per second, hopes to provide a sub-50 millisecond latency which speeds in the gigabit range. Recently, just in March 2017, OneWeb broke ground on its new satellite manufacturing facility, which is aimed to produce large volumes of satellites for high-performance on a weekly basis and completely bridge the digital divide across the world by 2027. Boeing has also applied to send a nearly 3,000 satellite constellation into orbit, most likely due to an increased risk of losing market share due to emerging competition. There are also rumors of a Boeing partnership with Apple who has recently hired two former Google executives involved in satellite projects. Much of the technical specifications remain unknown at this point. Competition in this global broadband through satellite industry is steadily increasing, Samsung announced plans for a 4,600 satellite constellation a while back and various other companies are also planning on launching smaller constellations ranging between 25 to the low hundreds. Regardless, competition is a great tool in driving industries forward and ultimately leads to a better world for the majority of the population.
With the density of satellites being sent into orbit, the manufacturing of the satellites will have to improve as well the economic feasibility. Currently widely adopted satellite manufacturing techniques require large teams of people and can only produce 1 to 2 satellites a month, a pace to slow for the scale of these constellations. As stated earlier in this section, as the frequencies satellites use gets higher, the satellites can get smaller. As we approach V-band satellites, we can begin launching smaller microsatellites, also referred to as CubeSats. The manufacturing of these CubeSats as compared to macro-sized satellites will greatly reduce the manufacturing time, as well as this, companies such as Boeing are introducing 3D printing automation into the satellite manufacturing process, which will massively increase the throughput of satellites produced per day. At scale the facilities SpaceX, OneWeb and Boeing are creating will be able to produce 4 or more satellites per day, with Boeing’s facility in Los Angeles already retrofitted with this manufacturing technology. As well as manufacturing speed, as materials engineering advances, we’ll be able to increase the lifespan of satellites from the current 5 to 7 years which will contribute greatly to the economics of satellite constellations. The introduction of automation and 3D printing are also huge factors in the economic feasibility of these initiatives, topped off with the fact that many of these microsatellites can be put in large reusable rockets and launched at scale. Initially, many of these initiatives will be brought to economically stable locations such as the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and others at costs competitive the current broadband providers in those locations.
As the chains expand globally, lower rates can begin to be introduced at just a few dollars a month for most locations and even lower for areas that desperately need stable connections. Tens to even hundreds of millions of people connecting to these services will prove them to be highly economically feasible and profitable. The global broadband space race is just beginning to heat up with companies battling over spectrum and orbits, and manufacturing starting to pick up, with the only major issue with these constellations being space debris – a topic best left for future videos. Whether terrestrial-based, drone-based, or space-based, there will be layers of connectivity surrounding the planet, leading to a world where everyone can access the power and tools of the evolving web.
This will lead to stronger economies, educated populations, increasing sociopolitical discussions, stronger aid to disaster relief efforts, and various other changes to make our world a better place than we’ll explore more in-depth in future videos. As the years progressed to 2021, global connectivity will appear not just as a vision for the future, but as a fundamental human right! At this point the article has come to a conclusion, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read it.