How Things Work: Google and Facebook race to provide faster Internet

Credit: Maegha Singh/ Credit: Maegha Singh/

The United States began developing and using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the early 1900s. They have been used to spy on other countries, attack enemy bases, and even track the movement of our forces in battle.

Sometimes, it seems — especially because of recent National Security Agency (NSA) spying scandals — that we will soon see top-secret government drones flying over us to monitor our lives. However, it turns out that the first drones that will be flying above our heads won’t be spying on our lives; they will be bringing us faster Internet.

In the last few years, Google and Facebook have been neck-and-neck in a race to provide fast, reliable Internet to people across the world. In pursuit of this goal, both companies are looking to develop Internet drones that will fly over the world and provide Internet access where ever they go. Instead of beginning the development process from scratch, both companies have recently purchased drone companies; Google bought Titan Aerospace and Facebook bought Ascenta.

The drones themselves utilize technology that give them both sophistication and longevity. According to Motherboard, the wingspan of each drone is about 50 feet, and all 50 feet are covered with solar panels. These solar panels provide power to the drone and allow them to remain flying in the air for up to five years at a time. This ability makes them the ideal Internet provider because they can remain in the air for great periods of time without having to be serviced or closely monitored.

These drones will fly at altitudes in the atmosphere of 60,000–70,000 feet, making them pseudo-satellites. Not only does this height allow them to reach a broad range of locations at once, but it also puts them outside the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA has authority over all aircrafts flying at a range below 60,000 feet. By flying above this height, Google and Facebook will not be under the jurisdiction of the FAA and will have a lot more flexibility in terms of what they are able to do with their planes.

While flying above the Earth, these drones will provide Internet users with blazing fast Internet speeds that dwarf current speeds provided through landlines. According to PolicyMic, the average Internet speed in the United States is currently 8.5 megabytes per second, and Ephreta, Washington is the city with the fastest connection at an averge of 95 megabytes per second. With that in mind, it is astonishing that the drones are projected to provide a speed of 1 gigabyte per second (1 gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes).

One potential method of transmission that Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is experimenting with is a new technology called Free Space Optics. This technology is essentially a laser that transmits energy through infrared light. While this technology is extremely effective at transmitting information, it has its drawbacks. For example, it requires a direct line of sight. Creating this line of sight is the equivalent of trying to hit a dime from 10 miles away. Despite this challenge, Mark Zuckerburg, founder and CEO of Facebook, believes that his company will have an initial prototype of the system up and running soon.

In addition to improving Internet connections, Google is looking to use the drones to enhance its current line-up of services. Currently, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and weather services provided by Google are enabled using satellites in space that do not belong to Google. With drones, Google will be able to completely control the machines collecting the information and will be able to provide live updates on things like weather and traffic. Additionally, the information will be more accurate and up-to-date because the drones will be closer to Earth.

While both companies are looking to monetize the skies with this new technology, the result of their work has very philanthropic benefits. Of the 7 billion people on this planet, only 39 percent of the world population uses the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union. With drones in the air, this number could drastically increase.

According to TechCrunch, in a recent speech, Zuckerburg cited a study from Deloitte that indicated that increased Internet usage could generate 140 million new jobs and lift 160 million people out of poverty in the United States alone. Not only does it connect people to their friends and families, but it is a vital resource that is economically empowering. The Internet allows people to find jobs, become entrepreneurs, and even have a bigger voice in their community.

If you need any more convincing on the importance of these drones, ask yourself: what would you do without the Internet?