We tend to think that everybody's online these days. In fact, only one-third of the world's population has access to the Internet. The other two-thirds are simply beyond reach.
Google and Facebook are hatching schemes (that some people call crazy) to bring to the majority of people what we in the privileged minority enjoy every day -- the ability to get online.
It's really an extension of actions Google and Facebook already take to get people connected.
Paying the bills
Most people in the industrialized world are aware that Google and Facebook pay millions of people in the developing world to use their services. That payment comes in the form of picking up the tab for mobile broadband data when people are using either Google or Facebook services.
In many parts of the world, people pay for data as they use it -- more usage, more cost. So a huge number of people who have data plans don't use them because they can't afford to.
So Facebook came up with an idea: Why not pick up the check?
Facebook Zero was announced in 2010 to bring people free data connectivity, at least while they're visiting Facebook. The initiative involves making partnerships with carriers that then implement the subsidy for Facebook.
Facebook Zero's Web address is 0.facebook.com or zero.facebook.com. Those URLs work only in the countries participating in the program, and only on the networks of the 50 or so participating carriers; users in other countries or on other networks are redirected to the standard mobile version of Facebook.
Wikipedia has a similar program called Wikipedia Zero, which operates in 34 countries.
Google's offering is called Google Free Zone. Through this two-year-old initiative, the company makes deals with mobile carriers in specific countries and agrees to pay the data charges of people who use Google search, Gmail or Google+.
Google Free Zone, as announced by Google on Nov. 8, 2012, operates in South Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Nigeria and Kenya.
Facebook Zero, Wikipedia Zero and Google Free Zone are great for the relatively small number of people who live in the right countries and use participating carriers.
Subsidized data plans are possible only for people who live in areas where mobile connectivity exists. But billions of people live beyond the reach of any kind of Internet connection.
Here's the problem: Wireless Internet access is not possible without a cell tower. A tower requires a cable-based connection and electrical power. If a company wants to put up a cell tower, it first needs to buy, or otherwise secure, rights to the land it wants to build on.
Because of those obstacles, billions of people have no chance of living within range of a cell tower in the foreseeable future. But Google and Facebook think they can make a difference by providing Internet connectivity via other means.
Google's Project Loon
For example, Google has undertaken an initiative called Project Loon through which it intends to use balloons and other interesting technologies to relay Internet connectivity to and from remote areas that are separated from major population centers by long distances or rugged terrain. Google officially unveiled Project Loon in June 2013.
One of the interesting technologies included in Project Loon is solar power. The balloons get their electricity from the sun, which is a great idea because they fly in the stratosphere (more than 12 miles high) -- above the clouds. It's always sunny up there.
Another is algorithmic control. Software moves the balloons up or down to catch wind currents based on their direction to more or less keep the balloons in one area. At that altitude, wind speeds can reach 100 mph, and the software has to cope with those speeds and changes in direction in real time.
A third technology used in Project Loon is mesh networking, which sends Internet packets from balloon to balloon and zaps data to and from homes and businesses below that have specially built antennas on their roofs.
Google's most recent test of Project Loon is taking place in Australia, where the company is partnering with Australian telecom Telstra. It's launching 20 balloons over Queensland this month. There are also tests underway in New Zealand, California's Central Valley and northeast Brazil.
There are about 75 Loon balloons in the air right now. By next year, Google intends to form a continuous, 50-mile-wide ring of Loon coverage that circles the Southern Hemisphere.
The purpose of these tests is partly to demonstrate Project Loon to the telecommunications companies that may partner with Google on the management of local programs.
Google also announced recently that it's already reaching its goal of keeping balloons aloft for around 100 days -- in fact, one of its balloons remained airborne for 134 days. Some experts thought that goal was unachievable, especially since NASA balloons typically remain in the air for only about 60 days at a time.
Another Google plan to zap Internet access to remote places involves the use of unmanned airplanes -- drones.
Back in April, the company bought Titan Aerospace, a startup that makes solar-powered drones. Titan will continue to operate independently of Google, but it will collaborate with Google on Google Maps and Project Loon.
Google hasn't talked a lot about how it will use drones. But Facebook has.
In August 2013, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched an organization called Internet.org, whose stated goal is to connect everyone in the world to the Internet. Its mission statement is: "No one should have to choose between access to the Internet and food or medicine."
Facebook partnered with Ericsson, Qualcomm, Samsung and other companies to bring the Internet "to the two-thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it."
To reach that goal, it's taking a broad, multifaceted approach that includes everything from helping global carriers analyze and improve the functionality of their networks (Facebook recently improved performance in Indonesia by 70%) to hackathons that tap local talent to create data-efficient apps. Internet.org has also created a free app that brings content from AccuWeather, Google search, Wikipedia and (naturally) Facebook.
While those sensible initiatives are worthy, Facebook's most interesting and surprising approaches include drones, satellites and lasers. The company is working with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and the Ames Research Center on those undertakings.
Earlier this year, Facebook acquired a consultancy called Ascenta. It was mainly an "aquihire" to get the founders, who developed Zephyr, which is the record holder for solar-powered drone flight, having put a solar drone in the sky for two weeks back in 2010.
These initiatives are a core part of Internet.org's plans, but they're being developed by Facebook itself. Facebook’s Silicon Valley-based Connectivity Lab (which has some employees in London) is aggressively hiring scientists and engineers to use drones, lasers and satellites to connect people who are currently beyond the reach of Internet access.
While Google is breaking records with balloon longevity of more than 100 days, Facebook is looking to solar-powered drones that can stay aloft for years. These remotely piloted aircraft may have wingspans as wide as a 747 (although their fuselages will be much skinnier), with the entire surface of the wings covered in solar panels.
Facebook drones would fly at around 65,000 feet, which is far above the altitude of commercial aircraft but the lowest altitude for unregulated airspace.
Like Project Loon balloons, the drones would use mesh networking and Wi-Fi to shuttle bits across the sky and back and forth between drones and antennas below.
The reach of the drones would be enhanced by low-orbit satellites, which will transmit data back and forth using infrared laser beams.
What everyone needs to know about these seemingly crazy projects is that they're really happening. They're not the wishful thinking pet projects of founders with too much money on their hands. Both Google and Facebook are aggressive and serious about using drones, satellites and balloons to bring Internet access to billions who currently don't have it.
Cynics can scoff and say that these ideas are impractical and self-serving. But I think that not only are they some of the most interesting and worthy projects currently being attempted, but also that they represent sensible thinking about connecting people at the lowest possible cost. And low cost is the most important aspect of these programs. Unless they're doable and sustainable, it's never going to happen.
Connecting the two-thirds majority who are without any Internet access is a worthy goal. Who else besides Google and Facebook is going to do it?
This story, "Why Google and Facebook Need Balloons, Drones and Rockets" was originally published by Computerworld.