From satellites to balloons, increased Internet access coming

The Internet has become more than a modern convenience - it is critical for the day-to-day operation of the developed world.  But what about places where Internet access is difficult to come by?  Our expansive network of fiber optic and copper cables stretches only so far.   The world is vast, and for political or practical reasons, much of it will probably never be wired on the house-to-house basis that prevails in the West.  Yet, most of our planet's population lives in these regions.  How can we help them connect?

First, a brief review of history.  Computer networking was first developed in the late 1960s by researchers in the United States who made use of ideas from around the world.  A flurry of independent networks arose.  Eventually it seemed sensible to connect them into one globe-spanning system.  The Internet was born.  Early Internet traffic was carried over the telephone line system.  If your house had a phone, you could get the Internet.  By the late 1990s, hundreds of millions were connected.  As fiber optic cable came into common usage, speeds increased and connections became permanent.  Always-on broadband became the standard connection.  Despite these advances, however, connecting to the Internet still required that your house or place of business have a physical wire laid to your doorstep.  That limitation largely exists today.

Countries by percent of Internet users in 2010.  Much of the world still lacks adequate connection and satellites could help fix that.  (Image credit: Jeff Ogden)

Modern space technology has enabled a new path.  Just as satellites broadcast our television programs and carry our telephone calls, they can be the twenty-first century infrastructure for the Internet.  Their current limitations are many: high latency, low throughput, steep costs.  But the potential benefits - Internet everywhere, for all people - make development worthwhile.

Russia has recently taken another step in this direction.  This week they launched the first four of a planned twelve-satellite array aimed to provide high-speed Internet connectivity to nearly two hundred of the world’s “under connected” countries.  With lower prices and four-times faster connectivity, many in the developing world will get their first taste of global interaction.  Countries with little national infrastructure may soon find themselves on the forefront of remote education.  Towns without the resources for a library or a doctor will get their first access to Wikipedia and WebMD - imagine the improvements to living conditions that this could bring (Of course, they will get Twitter, too...).

But as our global connectivity becomes ever more intricate, what happens when it is suddenly ripped out from under us?  Natural disasters can interrupt any form of networking at the time when we need it most.

Fortunately for us, Google has had its collective thinking cap on, and has come up with a solution.  Balloons.  That’s right - they’re not just for creating animals or floating around the countryside anymore.  Imagine a natural disaster on the scale of the 2004 Indian tsunami: complete chaos, infrastructure completely gone, hundreds of thousands of casualties.  Power would be gone for months, perhaps years, but first responders, aid workers, and national militaries still need to be able to coordinate.  Thanks to Internet-broadcasting helium balloons, all this can be possible.  Balloons are portable, quick to set up, and can float safely above the carnage - a nineteenth century solution to a twenty-first century problem!

And if you think that this is a problem confined to the developing world, think again. Many rural Americans today are forced to rely upon the same slow connections Russia hopes to replace and Hurricane Katrina proved a stark reminder about our vulnerability to natural disasters.  The Internet will one day connect us all, and it’s our collective responsibility to ensure that the most vulnerable among us get to join - and stay - in.