Here on earth, one of the significant trends in the smartphone business is the shift in focus from the developed economies in Europe, Asia-Pacific and North America to developing nations in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. The impact is enormous.
The shift is so significant that the ramifications won’t be felt just here on earth. Companies are lining up – or hovering – to creatively provide coverage to these areas, which generally lack suitable wired infrastructure and often are remote and sparsely populated.
PCMag reports that Qualcomm and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group are cooperating on a satellite venture. They are investing in OneWeb, a project that aims to build, launch and operate 648 low earth orbiting (LEO) satellites. The plan is to think globally and act locally:
OneWeb will work with local Internet operators, which will tap into these satellites to expand their coverage areas, the company said. "OneWeb terminals act as small cells with the ability to provide access to the surrounding area via a Wi-Fi, LTE, 3G, or 2G connection using an operator partner's licensed spectrum, or only LTE or Wi-Fi on unlicensed spectrum," OneWeb said in an announcement.
Space may soon be even more crowded with rich entrepreneurs. Newsweek reports that Elon Musk announced plans to launch a fleet of geosynchronous satellites that eventually could “be the primary means of long-distance internet traffic and to serve people in sparsely populated areas.” The story says that the venture will be associated with SpaceX and could be the communications basis for Musk’s attempts to send a man (Musk hopes it will be he) to Mars. Google, according to CNET, is considering an investment in SpaceX.
Google’s Project Loon is among the more outlandish sounding concepts with the same basic goal. Slate’s Will Oremus describes the progress being made. The project involves a fleet of high-altitude balloons that minutely coordinate their movements in order to create a mesh of coverage. The story starts with the view expressed by the scientific community that the project, which was announced in June, 2013, is doomed to fail. At that point, critics said that it is impossible for balloons to stay aloft for the 100-plus days called for in the plan. Writes Oremus:
And yet, as you read this, some 75 Google balloons are airborne, hovering somewhere over the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere, automatically adjusting their altitudes according to complex algorithms in order to catch wind currents that will keep them on course. By next year, Google believes it will be able to create a continuous, 50-mile-wide ring of Internet service around the globe. And by 2016, Project Loon director Mike Cassidy anticipates the first customers in rural South America, Southern Africa, or Oceania will be able to sign up for cellular LTE service provided by Google balloons.
Facebook also is looking upward. Mashable, in an update on the company, notes that it acquired Ascenta, a company that makes solar-powered drones that can be used to provide connectivity in underserved areas.
That’s quite a list of companies that are queuing up to serve areas that so far have been bypassed or are underserved. Part of this undoubtedly is altruistic. On the other hand, this segment of the world’s population can pay off for these companies, if very efficient means of serving them are found.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.