Up, up, and away: expanding global connectivity

The pandemic has highlighted how vital internet access can be, but global coverage is still limited. Tech firms are developing innovative design solutions to expand access

Experts have been arguing for years that internet access should be viewed as a fundamental utility, with studies showing that it is increasingly vital for jobs, education and access to information. However, nearly half of the population of the planet don’t have access currently, and many more still lack what might be considered meaningful access. In one bid to redress this balance, a fleet of solar-powered balloons will be deployed over rural areas of Kenya to improve internet availability across the country.

These have been developed by Loon, one of Google’s ‘moonshot’ projects. Previously providing emergency-only internet access, the company is now looking at non-emergency, commercial internet service provision. Made from polyethylene and each the size of a tennis court, the balloons will hover on stratospheric winds at the edge of space, controlled on the ground by machine-learning algorithms that have developed their own complex navigational movements. They won’t replace conventional infrastructures, but will add a ‘third layer’ to the connectivity ecosystem, enabling provision to be expanded more rapidly.

Connection in a crisis

2020 has highlighted just how essential internet connectivity can be – to work, each other, education, and to vital information about combating the pandemic. For professionals in wealthier countries and areas, the ongoing crisis has been significantly eased by access to video calls and internet deliveries.

However, for those who don’t have access to the internet (either due to connectivity or not owning a suitable device), it has been much more precarious. And this is not purely a developing world issue; income has been repeatedly proven to be the primary determinant of internet access around the world. Around 14 million people in the US are not internet users, and 24 million lack broadband at home, relying on access to public facilities where available.

Low-earth-orbit satellites

Globally, most of the regions not yet covered are rural and low income, with laying cable in these areas prohibitively expensive. Even cell tower access can be too costly without an existing critical mass of paying customers. Google is only one of a number of technology firms to have recognised this issue. One of the most highly publicised efforts in recent months is the Starlink programme developed by SpaceX, which aims to have launched up to 800 low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites by the end of 2020. Amazon and OneWeb are also exploring this technology, with new LEO satellites potentially able to offer latency periods equal to or better than many cable and DSL systems.

Predictions have been made that, in the next three to five years, most of the planet will have some level of access to broadband. This will directly connect over three billion people to the global economy for the first time, representing a one-time-only expansion of the global marketplace. This presents an unprecedented opportunity for businesses that can position themselves to take advantage of it.

Imogen Privett’s full design roundup of innovations for work and workplace can be found in the Innovation Zone.

Imogen Privett is a Senior Research Associate in WORKTECH Academy and Workplace Innovation Consultant with UnWork. An architectural designer and researcher, she holds degrees in both History and Architecture.
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