The internet is not like water to be retrieved in a bottle for a distant journey over desert lands. Being inaccessible without electricity, the internet cannot be charged with a battery for the subsequent use, however. Even ephemeral phenomena such as sounds and human thoughts can be recorded one way or another, but not the internet.
ISPs, NAPs, and United Nations
The dynamic virtual nature makes the internet alive only online. That’s why only Network Access Points (NAPs) allow users meet the internet. Historically, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been recognized as the benefactors graciously providing people with the access to the internet via NAPs. Not State authorities and governmental bodies, but IPSs control the internet actually.
This obvious fact seems remaining unclear for the United Nations Human Rights Council (internet access is accepted as one of the human rights, by the way), which passed a resolution in June 2016 that “condemns countries that intentionally take away or disrupt its citizens’ internet access”.
What have countries (i.e. governments) got to do with it? Not only “sub-democratic” Russia and China denied this resolution, but also quite liberal India and South Africa did. They would love to accept the resolution in all honesty. But most probably they do not know how to meet the resolution’s requirements. This is not about the authoritarianism or diabolic cunning inherent in those governments. This is about the infrastructure.
Mongolian case hints at money
Any UN resolution cannot support those 4 billion people throughout the world who have not the internet access now. Their locations are not covered by the internet infrastructure with NAPs. At first glance, this is the mere technical issue that should be addressed directly to IPSs, not to the governments in most cases. However, the current stage of the technological development is hardly the reason that some areas are out of the internet. Take Mongolia, for example, where 2.8 million people live across 1.5 million square kilometers (a half of India by the area size). This is the world’s least densely populated country with challenging topography and weather. Only 1% of residents in Mongolia’s countryside had telephone connections in 2005 when telecoms infrastructure belonged to the Mongolian government. Since that time, the investment into networks’ infrastructure has increased almost by an order of magnitude (from $37 million to $395 million) due to the subsidies of the World Bank incentivizing commercial structures to provide the internet in rural areas. And this is the point. Not governmental restrictions or technological constraints kept Mongolian rural population away from the internet. The economic feasibility and a lack of funding did it.
The feasibility can explain quite weird projects such as Aquila by Facebook Connectivity Lab and Project Loon by Google. They both are aimed at providing remote locations with the internet. Both projects use pretty unexpected technologies in the era of space satellites that usually come to mind when the fiber-optic cables seem either too expensive or technically unjustifiable for arranging the access to broadband networks.
Facebook decided to develop and launch a fleet of huge drones capable of flying up to 3 months in a non-stop mode delivering the internet to the hardest-to-reach places. Zuckerberg announced Aquila as the project capable of providing Facebook users with more reliable connections and higher bandwidth enabling the next generation of Facebook’s services based on artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Facebook describes Aquila as their “high-altitude unmanned solar-powered airplane able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 11.36 miles using laser communications and millimeter wave systems.”
- Project Loon
Project Loon is developed by X (former Google X) in order to provide internet access to remote and rural areas using high-altitude balloons. They will float in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 11 miles creating aerial wireless networks with 10 Mbps LTE speed.
A fleet of balloons can maneuver in the stratosphere adjusting their speed and direction by the different wind layers. Artificial intelligence, autonomous cars, and cloud technologies for IoT solutions all require reliable broadband networks to make sense. Google can see the issue very clearly developing Project Loon.
Two arguments against satellites
Both digital giants involve flying objects that can transmit signals to ground stations or mobile users while covering huge areas with the internet. Both projects are experimental and risky having no previous practical background. Why don’t they rely on quite traditional space satellites? Two main factors can compose the explanation:
- The economic factor suggests that space programs are still very expensive. Of course, space satellites are affordable for both Facebook and Google who, to say the least, have the money. And probably the mere business success made them calculate profits properly recognizing when the game was worth the candle. Besides, neither Facebook nor Google is engaged deeply in space exploration. This is not their business, but the same is not true of Elon Musk. His Space X is planning to launch more than 4000 satellites into low-Earth orbits to arrange a global internet system.
- The technological factor suggests that satellite ISPs have latencies inappropriate for the prospective internet services (AI, VR, IoT etc.) requiring abundant data exchange at high speed. The existing HughesNet satellite network has 600ms latency while Space X expects to reach 25-35ms latency.
When it comes to satellites, the latency depends on altitude directly. That’s why Space X satellites should keep the low-orbit altitudes of 715-823 miles in contrast to HughesNet ones keeping 22 000 miles altitude. The same goes for Aquila(11.36 miles) and Project Loon(11 miles).
Besides aerial and space projects, some “earthy” ones are worth mentioning. Russian data scientists from Novosibirsk city (Siberia) are experimenting with the huge national gas supply system covering Russia almost completely. Theoretically, the steel piping system can be appropriate for transmitting data packets.
Another proposition comes from German scientists (Karlsruhe Technological Institute) who suggest using the frequency range of TV broadcasting which is left untapped after shifting to digital cable television over the whole country. If bandwidth lower 2 GHz is used for Wi-Fi, the former TV broadcasting system can cover the whole Germany with the wireless internet.
Yet another project is known as the Powerline technology when the internet access is available through the electric power supply system where sockets are equipped with special network adapters.
Triumvirate vs Oligopoly
The way things are going, the internet will cover the whole planet soon (including the North Pole and Antarctica) forming the holistic true “digisphere”. All we have to do is buying gadgets to be connected. Rich dudes from Facebook, Google and Space X will pay for the entire infrastructure (if nothing terrible happens with their projects).
And in the current internet dichotomy “content - infrastructure” the latter will win. Instead of the ongoing oligopoly of several hundreds of IPSs, we will get the oligopoly of several ones (probably it will be the triarchy if no one of the main competitors withdraws from the race). The UN Human Rights Council will have to forget the resolution of 2016 because the global democracy will triumph in the cyberspace at least. Sounds great!
The only thing Indeema wants to leave for further consideration is control of information. But that’s another story.