Project Loon and Facebook Attempt to Bring Africa Online


With access to unlimited information, a network of people, and constant entertainment via the internet, it’s no wonder that the world feels as though it’s shrinking. Or at least it might feel that way to the segments of society that are online; only one third of the global population is connected. Lack of access due to limited resources, the expense, and the lack of speed which ultimately leads to the lack of practicality.

 

When it comes to internet accessibility, Africa is way behind the curve. Most internet activity is concentrated in the urban areas, and the rural citizenry are all but cut off.

 

But all of that is about to change.

 

Google and Facebook are each developing their own means for linking everyone together. For Google, it’s Project Loon — a network of hot air balloons that communicate and shoot down internet connection to rural areas. For Facebook, it’s Internet.org — a collaboration with a number of other big-name companies to spread connection — and the Connectivity Lab, where they design the drones that will make it happen.

 

The goal? “To make affordable access to basic internet services available to every person in the world,” Mark Zuckerburg, co-founder of Facebook, states.

 

About Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s Connectivity Lab

Project Loon is Google’s attempt at making internet available to everyone in the world, fashioning a truly a worldwide connection rather than leaving out the five to six billion people who remain disconnected. The project utilizes solar-powered hot air balloons, which are sent up into the stratosphere and circulate the world utilizing wind currents. The balloons together create a network, which is accessible by antenna. An antenna calls up to a balloon, which communicates with the rest, and then back down to the internet provider on the ground.

 

Project Loon began testing in June 2013 in New Zealand with a group of volunteers, followed shortly by Central Valley, California and Northeastern Brazil. The tests thus far have proven that hot air balloons may actually be a successful way to get an internet connection to the rural places of the world.

 

Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, which was announced in March 2014 (through a Facebook status, appropriately enough) by Zuckerburg. Working as part of Internet.org, Facebook is one of seven companies in the partnership, which also includes Samsung, Nokia, Ericsson, Mediatach, Opera Software, and Qualcomm. Within a year, Internet.org’s efforts in the Philippines and Paraguay had gotten a connection to three million new people, but leaves room for improvement as far as technology goes.

 

That’s where the Connectivity Lab comes in. The Connectivity Lab is Facebook’s portion of the project where they are developing the world’s longest flying solar-powered and unmanned aircraft, in partnership with Nasa’s Jet Propulsion lab and Ames Research Center. This aircraft, or drone, will be one of many which will be capable of remaining in the stratosphere for months or years at a time to enable consistent access. Maguire, the engineering director for the Connectivity Lab, said during a talk at the Social Good Summit in NYC: “We’re going to have to push the edge of solar technology, battery technology, composite technology.”

 

Both Project Loon and the Connectivity Lab show promise for administering the internet to the two-thirds of the world that is currently in the dark; however, the length of time that it takes to get to that point is yet to be determined.

 

Implications to the communities

The internet has become vital for rural communities, including farmers who use it primarily to check the weather, market information, and crop production / maintenance, amongst other things. Despite the importance of consistent power to maintain a connection and an internet connection itself, most rural Africans have no way to log on, which leaves them at a disability. They are not able to utilize it so that it may aid in the management of variables that affect their production, such as climate.

 

“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… I’m just looking for a window so I can plan my week,” said Charles, a rural farmer in New Zealand and the first person to ever connect to the internet via Project Loon.

 

Internet accessibility in rural areas is a global issue. And while rural communities in some countries like the United States have access to satellite service providers like HughesNet, the citizens of rural Africa don’t have very many options. Increasing internet accessibility will improve not only the quality of life for the average African citizen, but it can also enrich Africa’s economy. Through eccentric projects that use hot-air balloons and laser beams, Google and Facebook might make the internet available in rural communities throughout Africa.

It’s possible that all of the developments the field of internet from the sky, the two-thirds of the population that is not currently connected, will be. The world is about to get a whole lot smaller.


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