Clips, Internet, Space

Wi-Fi From The Sky

I

A civilization sans Facebook will hum along fine. But without the Internet, it’ll surely fall.

Just as it’s absurd for 21st century citizens—at least, in the industrialized West—to read a book in the flickering halo of a gas lamp, it’s equally odd being offline. The Internet, a seemingly invisible tool, has become so intrinsic to our lives that we’ve come to regard it as vital as clean water and electricity.

So, in the middle of last year, when the American Federal Communications Commission, under pressure from the Internet service provider lobby, proposed a new set of rules, which let U.S. telecom giants like Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable, bifurcate the “information highway” into a so-called “fast lane” and a “slow lane,” there was an uproar.

Protesters screamed that that would kill “network neutrality,” the long-standing convention that Internet service providers treat all data equally and fairly, regardless of whether its bits and bytes of The New Yorker or a song on Spotify or a banter on WhatsApp. They shouldn’t play favorites with packets of data, they demanded.

Under the new arrangement, a company like Netflix or Hulu would have to pay a “toll” to allow their content to be streamed more speedily into our tablets or televisions. And if they paid more, they’d make us pay more. Aside from fattening our bills, it’d also put a dampener on innovations, whose very bedrock is the Internet.

Fortunately, the crisis was averted. Nearly four million letters from consumers and advocacy groups poured into the federal agency, cajoling it to save the Internet from falling into the hands of corporate profiteers.

In response, in a statement to WIRED, Mr. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, wrote: “The Internet must be fast, fair, and open.” And so it will remain—for now, and in the future.

What we perceive as an indispensable utility, without which we find ourselves isolated, lost, and bored, is, however, a luxury that 4.4 billion, across the world, have no access to. Not touched by the hand of the Internet god, they don’t know what it is to be “connected.”

But a conversation is now beginning to bubble over novel modes of extending connectivity to them, by beaming it down from space. (More on that later.)

II

When you send an e-mail, you casually tap on the “send” button. Whoosh. And like that, it’s gone. You think nothing of it after that, secure in the certainty that it’ll pop up in another inbox, near or far. You couldn’t be sniggered at for thinking that it flew away on the wingtips of a firedrake. After all, there’s so little of this service that we can see—nothing beyond our laptop, router, and modem.

In reality, the Internet has a Cyclopean physical architecture, made of a zoo of computers, and a dense mesh of wires that girdle around the globe. Once your message leaves your desk, in Chicago, it’s broken down into small pieces. And then it hops from telephone pole to telephone pole until it reaches land’s end.

Next, it journeys through optical fibers—each an incredibly thin strand of glass or plastic that serves as a conduit for data—sealed in submarine cables that run along level stretches of the seabed, carefully avoiding coral reefs; sunken ships; marine troughs and ridges; and fish beds, before arriving at its destination, Beijing.

The diameter of a deep-water cable is roughly that of a garden hose (0.7 inches) while those in shallower waters are thicker, about the cross-section of a soda can (2.7 inches.)

Similarly, when someone in Los Angeles wants to read the lifestyle section of the English daily, The Times, she keys in its U.R.L. A request to retrieve it goes out. From wherever it is—presumably, London—it travels through the cold, dark depths of the Atlantic Ocean to her Internet service provider’s terminal. It’s a short jump from there to her desktop.

At this time, there are 278 active cables. Together, they loop around for some 555,000 miles under the sea, linking all the continents, barring Antarctica and a few island nations. (For perspective: Mount Everest stands five miles tall.) And it’s this aquatic grid that powers the overwhelming bulk of our Internet.

III

While on the go, the Internet can be reached on a smartphone through a cell phone tower. Reception is excellent at a Starbucks, in New York’s Time’s Square, but as you move away from bustling urban pockets, it tends to get sluggish and patchy, till it dwindles to a naught. Driving along a rural section of Asia’s Grand Trunk Road, your device will receive hardly any signal at all.

Worse still, what if you’re in the middle of nowhere, where there’s not even a radio mast and an aerial in the vicinity? The only way to log on is by means of satellites.

These are pieces of school bus-size machinery that are placed in what’s known as a “geostationary orbit.” As Earth spins, they spin with it, in tandem, 22,240 miles above the surface, in a hula hoop-like circular path, along the plane of Earth’s midriff.

To an observer, looking out the window, they’d therefore, appear to be stationary, hovering in the same position night after night. They’re so placed such that ground-based antennas, which “talk” to them, don’t have to keep rotating to keep track of them.

They serve as enormous mirrors in space, capable of bouncing off telephone calls, television and radio broadcasts; and Internet content, from one sector of the world to another.

This is how they work. You’re on a luxury liner, sailing on the Aegean Sea, and you’d like to call someone in Istanbul. As you place your call, your phone connects to the ship’s on-board “transmitter,” which then beams it up to a “receiver” up on a satellite, in an “uplink.” The satellite’s transmitter, in turn, sends it back down in a “downlink” to another receiver on the Turkish coast, from where it’s then routed to the recipient.

The entire process takes place within a flash. But while it works wonderfully for a standard, voice-only phone call, it may not if you were trying to tweet from the deck or download “War and Peace” on your e-reader from inside your cabin.

IV

Presently, satellites are slowpokes when it comes to providing entry to the Internet.

Signals from Earth—in the form of radio waves, which travel at the same speed as light—take 0.25 seconds to make one round-trip. While that may sound like an infinitesimal time frame, it’s not small enough to support a real-time video call, made through an application like Skype.

As of 2006, satellites handled a surprising one percent of all telecom traffic. But that could change if the vision of a couple of Silicon Valley tech tycoons materializes.

V

Elon Musk is the founder of SpaceX, a Hawthorne, California-based private space firm. Its spacecraft, Dragon, made history in May, 2012, when it became the first commercial vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. After retiring its Space Shuttle fleet a year ago, NASA handed it the job of ferrying cargo to the orbiting laboratory. (The American crew, however, so far, still hitches rides with the Russians aboard Soyuz.)

Musk also has a finger in other bleeding-edge pies: Tesla (maker of luxury electric cars); SolarCity (provider of solar power equipment); Hyperloop (a tube transport that will whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in roughly half an hour, at a tearing 598 m.p.h.)

And now, he’s fallen hard for the notion of bringing high-speed Internet (repeat: high-speed) to everyone, everywhere, through a swarm of 4,000 miniature Sputniks, buzzing around in low-Earth orbit—just 750 miles up in the sky.

Greg Wyler of OneWeb has plans to put up a smaller cluster of 648. His project is expected to be up and running before the end of the decade, and is expected to cost $2 billion.

Keeping the satellites wheeling closer to home will reduce the lag by a wide margin—to a mere 0.006 seconds. On the downside, the area covered by each will be very limited—about the size the New Mexico. Their narrow reach, however, is compensated for by their multitude.

Sometimes, it’s hard to turn dreams into reality if the capital required to make it happen is an astronomical (pardon the pun) sum. But both these enterprises have attracted the pocketbooks of big-name players.

Search-engine titan, Google, and investor, Fidelity, have plunked down $1 billion into Musk’s venture, which carries a price tag of a staggering $10 billion. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Qualcomm, on the other hand, are backing OneWeb.

The media splash made by these recent announcements has eclipsed the success of 03b, which has been in the business since before all the hoopla began.

The Channel Islands-based company was the first to offer broadband service to a sizeable geographic belt, running 45 degrees north and south of the equator. By placing a dozen satellites at an altitude of 5,000 miles, it’s been able to cut the delay to 0.15 seconds, making connections faster.

The cost of putting a satellite in orbit depends on its size, and how far away from Earth it’ll be deployed. They can weigh anywhere between 2.2 pounds (CubeSat) to over 2,200. O3b’s products are about 1,500 pounds, when fully fueled.

To make the technology more feasible, it’s imperative that satellites be lighter and more compact, so that a single rocket launch can transport a big batch. O3b has sent up four at a time.

VI

While Google has invested in Musk’s endeavor, it’s also fine-tuning an experiment of its own to haul service to the Internet boondocks, in rural, far-flung regions.

“Loon,” like the orbital proposals, is about delivering connectivity from above, but while staying put within Earth’s atmosphere. A constellation of big balloons, floating in a cloudless, bluish, ozone-drenched realm, about 20 miles above, will create an aerial Wi-Fi matrix that will offer 3G speeds.

In that serene “near-space,” where the air is thin, dry, and nippy, they’ll have no trucking with commercial jets or weather-related turbulence—but only different layers of winds. These dirigibles will scud away to wherever they’re needed, by hitchhiking on the back of a cold stream, moving north, south, east, or west. To test the program, 30 balloons were set aloft above New Zealand’s South Island, in June, 2013.

Each unit can provide coverage to an area with a diameter of 25 miles. Subscribers, in an apartment complex, below, will be able to catch the signals through a bowl on their rooftop.

Not to be outdone, Facebook too, has ambitions to develop another kind of network—a network of massive drones that will allow more people to get online.

“Connectivity Lab,” unveiled in March, last year, envisions hoisting solar-powered, long-endurance flying machines that will stay airborne, uninterruptedly, for months. At a recent Mashable-hosted conference, Yael Maguire, the project’s director of engineering, said that they’d be about the size of a Boeing-747. But Facebook is yet to announce when they’ll roll out.

Since the end of the Cold War, we haven’t seen a fiercer competition in the aerospace industry. Only, this isn’t a race between two nations, but among corporations, all belonging to one nation. Also, it’s not a race to put up weapons of destruction, but instruments of empowerment.

Not all of it is motivated by altruism, of course. Some of it is driven by greed. There’s money to be made. And lots of it. The more the eyeballs, the more is the advertising moolah. But that’s not the end of it.

Musk intends to channel that revenue into funding a similar infrastructure on Mars. By the time humanity arrives on the Red Planet, and sets up an outpost there, he’d like them to be able to send their maiden Instagram post from an Internet station on the rim of the Pavonis Mons.

But for the moment, there’s a mission to be accomplished on our pale blue dot.

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