Google and Facebook Plan to Reach Remote Areas of the Planet

The tech giants are launching balloons and satellites to help bring Internet to the far reaches of the Earth.

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Google and Facebook are both looking to the sky to provide Internet access to regions traditionally disconnected from the global network. Google's plans involve giant balloons, while Facebook wants to launch satellites. Both plans could free people from relying on Internet hot-spots like this one at Kigali International Airport. Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

In 2011, following the 17th session of its 47-country-strong human rights council, the U.N. announced that it considered Internet access a human right. Four years later, more than half of the world's population still doesn't have regular access. For all its good intentions, the U.N. has no way of forcing either the world's governments or corporations to bring connectivity to the huge swaths of the planet that remain offline. But two of the world's biggest tech companies, Google and Facebook, have taken up the challenge and launched projects to provide universal Internet access.

In a blog published October 28, Google announced that Indonesia's top three mobile-network providers will begin testing its project to deliver the Internet to the whole world. The search giant plans to connect billions more people to the Web via huge balloons—think of them as floating cellphone towers—in the Earth's stratosphere. Named Project Loon—both for the balloons and the craziness of the project—Indonesia will start testing the scheme next year.

A few weeks before Google made its Indonesia plans public, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his company was partnering with satellite operator Eutelsat, headquartered in France, to deliver Internet from space. Facebook's satellite is currently under construction and is scheduled to launch in 2016. The company intends to have it deliver Internet access to parts of sub-Saharan Africa. It's part of Facebook's wider Internet.org project, which aims to provide online access, with the help of six other tech companies, to everyone in the world now lacking it.

The project has faced criticism for its approach. In February 2015, Facebook launched Internet.org, now rebranded as Free Basics, in India. People who owned devices supported by Reliance Communications, an Indian telecommunications company, were able to gain access to a stripped-down version of Facebook and some online services, such as news articles and health and job information. But several Web publishers in India pulled out of the project, saying it violated the principle of net neutrality, which holds that Internet providers should give access to all online data.

Unlike Internet.org, Project Loon doesn't restrict Internet access. But unlike Facebook, Google has yet to prove it can deliver. The company has said it will need around 300 balloons to build a continuous chain of communication around the world.

While Facebook's and Google's projects have excited many in the tech community, critics have noted that the two companies stand to benefit from them. Though both say they hope the technology will help lift people out of poverty, by getting more people online, the two ad-supported businesses will also ensure there's a new supply of consumers for advertisers to target.

Though their efforts may ultimately benefit their own bottom lines, the two tech giants' attempts to connect 4.2 billion people to the Internet seem likely to have real long-term benefits, such as providing access to educational software; employment opportunities; and online health care, financial and commercial services. And that may mean that sooner rather than later, most people in the world will be online.

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