Zuckerberg wants fill planet's toughest broadband gaps with drones

There’s a huge difference between some Internet access, no matter how poor, and none at all. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is looking at drones as economically sustainable broadband infrastructure where conventional technology doesn’t cut it. In a white paper published on Internet.org, Zuckerberg frames the question…

Our research has shown that approximately 80–90% of the world’s population lives today in areas already covered by 2G or 3G networks. These environments are mostly urban or semi-urban, and the basic cell and fiber infrastructure has already been constructed here by mobile operators. For most people, the obstacles to getting online are primarily economic.

For the remaining 10–20%, the economic challenges also apply, but in this case they also explain why the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built out. The parts of the world without access to 2G or 3G signals are often some of the most remote places on Earth, where physical access to communities is difficult. Deploying the same infrastructure here that is already found in urban environments is uneconomical as well as impractical.

Satellites are one option, but the high cost of orbital bandwidth led Zuckerberg and the Facebook Connectivity Lab consider other options, balancing the constraints of atmospheric flight, solar power and the need to deliver sufficiently strong signals to people on the ground…

Drones operating at 65,000 feet are ideal. At this altitude, a drone can broadcast a powerful signal that covers a city-sized area of territory with a medium pop- ulation density. This is also close to the lowest altitude for unregulated airspace, and a layer in the atmosphere that has very stable weather conditions and low wind speeds. This means an aircraft can easily cruise and conserve power, while generating power through its solar panels during the day to store in its batteries for overnight use.

For what it’s worth, he’s right. I worked on a similar project more than 10 years ago with Aerovironment, still a leading unmanned aerial vehicle developer and manufacturer. We worked within the same constraints and reached essentially the same conclusions, but the technology – particularly solar cells and batteries – wasn’t ready yet. That was then, this is now. And that might be enough.