In our hyper-wired world, it’s hard to imagine that just a skimpy 35% of the global population has Internet access. The promise of getting that remaining 65%—or at least some of it—is a cornucopia of economic temptation. Studies have shown that boosting broadband speed alone can spur a jump in economic output. In India, for example, getting 28% of the country online, up from 10, could help triple GDP to $100 billion. Those forecasts have caught the obsessive attention of giants like Google and Facebook, as well as ambitious but lesser known upstarts.
Steve Collar, CEO of O3B Networks, is one of the latter. "Broadband is one of the most enabling technologies of our lifetime," he says. "But you can’t run fiber through the Amazon, or through the mountains of Pakistan." Instead, by the end of 2014, Collar’s Stockholm-based company plans to put 12 satellites into orbit that will deliver 3G networks to large swaths of emerging markets. But unlike the satellites that already deliver a connection, O3B’s infrastructure will live much closer to Earth’s surface. So while Direct TV’s satellites hover at 22,500 miles away from Earth, O3B’s are at 8,000—cutting down costs. That proximity eliminates the signal delay, but still offers enough coverage per satellite. "We can just get more data through and more bandwidth through," Collar says. "We’re really in the sweet spot." O3B is testing in the Cook Islands in March, with a projected launch in May.
But there are also bigger players in the fledgling market. In August Mark Zuckerberg launched Internet.org, with Samsung, Nokia, Qualcomm, and Ericsson as partners, a part-humanitarian, part-business initiative to make Internet access more affordable. It’s a prep move for the widespread adoption of some 5 billion smartphones that will occur across the globe in the next five years. Smartphones don’t mean data, too, so Internet.org envisions bringing down the cost of Internet access by improving the efficiency of mobile apps, to give users a cadre of online basics: social networks, search engines, and Wikipedia.
Meanwhile, Google has expanded on their pursuit to bring connectivity to the world (this includes successful but expensive projects like installing faster fiber networks in cities like Kansas City, Missouri, and Austin, Texas) by piloting a system that could deliver low-cost Internet to further reaches of the globe. Project Loon, from the Google X lab behind Glass, is Google’s madcap plan to launch 50-by-40-foot-sized balloons outfitted with Wi-Fi transmitters up 12.5 miles into the stratosphere. Those balloons will beam back down to Earth—and during testing already got sheep farmers in New Zealand online.
To do this long term, Google, a company built off algorithms, has to spar with the unpredictability of weather. Programmers can analyze wind data, but they can’t determine its course, so the balloons are designed to float along certain currents, until their (desired) life span of 100 days comes to an end. At which point Google—who has two U.S.-based factories supplying the special plastic needed—will simply launch hundreds, if not thousands, more into the sky.