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The race to build a global network

There is no shortage of reasons why network access is good for a community. It boosts commerce, brings people together, assists in emergencies, and elevates a society to a more cohesive level.

And for some major online brands, it literally creates a new market for users to access their services. So while government attention to mobile black spots remains slow, a few ambitious minds (and their backers) are finding new ways to bring a network to you, changing what we think about 21st century infrastructure in the process.

Let’s go back to the Flinders: knowing the enormous outback market share and all-terrain utility of its Land Cruiser 4WD, Toyota Motors and (creative firm) Saatchi & Saatchi teamed up with Flinders University Academic Paul Gardner-Stephen to develop emergency hotspots inside their vehicles (Gardner-Stephens was a network consultant in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake). These could be paired with other rovers to deliver emergency signals to first-responders via an iOS app, eventually re-designed to deliver entire Wi-Fi services to regional areas. The idea is built on delivering emergency messages to areas of low reception though their small innovation is scalable at a global level.

Space_race_2.0

Anyone who has tried to access WiFi from an airplane or cruise ship would know how frustratingly slow the process is, thanks to the lag between towers on the ground and satellites in space. The challenge is developing ‘low-orbit’ satellites (some 160 – 2,000 kilometres above ground) where signal distance (and lag) is far lower. And when money isn’t a problem, there are some very creative ways to make it happen.

After conquering much of the connected world via the social network Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg sees his legacy in connecting roughly 4.56 billion humans to the Internet via the Internet.org program. This ambitious strategy is multi-faceted, but can be broken into a few key mandates:

  • Leverage websites to develop ‘Free Basics’ versions that can be accessed on low-touch networks
  • Partnering with ISPs and mobile providers to offer free access to these basic sites, plus network access to their local community
  • Building brand new internet access technology from a ‘Connectivity Lab’, including the Aquila network drone, which can stay in the air for up to three months at a time.

Of course, some of these free access sites include Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp, though it also offers free access to health information, women’s resources, employment services, and local information.

Not to be outdone, Elon Musk (of solar power company Tesla and Space Exploration firm SpaceX) has reserved some leftover ambition for low cost, universal Internet access, aiming to have some 700 satellites blanketing developing countries at a cost of around $15 billion. This is likely out of Musk’s price range, but he sees these serving the Internet needs of Martian colonies, so consider it ambitious thinking for now. Hot on his heels, Greg Wyler’s OneWeb follows a similar path for hundreds of low-flying satellites in remote regions around the globe. With funding from the global Virgin Group behind him, the table is wide open in the second space race.

One of the largest proponents of universal Internet access, the Google Loon project pins its network dreams on high-density helium balloons – some lasting in the air for up to six months at a time. Originally conceived for communication between truckers and oil companies in the US, it has since launched thousands of balloons for over 17 million km of test flights – including a pilot program with Vodafone that brought Internet to rural farmers in Christchurch, NZ. Despite a global end-goal, this tech could be made easily deployable to remote disaster zones for short connectivity in times of need.

High cost, low return?

It goes without saying that a universal network service in the sky would open up a whole new chapter on digital rights, as countries and corporations fight for their share of access. Are universal services owned by all telcos? And what happens when bandwidth hits maximum capacity? These are all on top of the enormous cost of both tech development and deployment; and the low price-point required for take-up in emerging economies.

What does it mean for Australia?

Ambition of this scale is worthy of the billions of dollars being directed its way –but what does an active Facebook account in Africa have to do with service in regional Australia? What we are seeing is the earliest development stages of global network technology. One that, with greater efficiency and mainstream awareness, could make its way from the third world to universal access across Australia.

However, this doesn’t mean we need to settle now, and there are solutions to our current needs. Though the Mobile Black Spot Programme brings coverage and choice to tens of thousands of regional Australians, we have a long way to go. Increased infrastructure sharing and initiatives such as roaming have significant potential to improve regional  communication services and competition.

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