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Why Zuckerberg prefers drones to Google's balloons

Zach Miners | March 31, 2014
Mark Zuckerberg is determined to bring Internet access -- and thus Facebook access -- to every corner of the globe, no matter how remote. On Friday, the social network's CEO said more about how he plans to do that, and it involves drones, satellites and even data-carrying laser beams fired across space.

Mark Zuckerberg is determined to bring Internet access -- and thus Facebook access -- to every corner of the globe, no matter how remote. On Friday, the social network's CEO said more about how he plans to do that, and it involves drones, satellites and even data-carrying laser beams fired across space.

Zuckerberg didn't exactly take a potshot at Google, but he did mention twice why he thinks drones are a better option than balloons for beaming Internet access to remote places. Balloons, of course, are the main communications vehicle for Google's Project Loon.

With drones, Facebook will be able to "precisely control the location of these aircraft, unlike balloons," Zuckerberg wrote in a paper on the topic. And drones, he said elsewhere, "have more endurance than balloons."

The battle for the skies has commenced.

Different parts of the world require different technologies for Internet access, based on factors like population density and the size of the area to be covered. Zuckerberg described Facebook's approach to the problem in the paper he published Friday.

Some 10 percent to 20 percent of the world's population lives outside the range of 2G and 3G wireless networks, and many of those people are in remote areas where building physical networks on the ground is "uneconomical as well as impractical," he explained.

One option Facebook is considering is "free space optical communication," or FSO, which uses light to transmit data through space. "These are basically invisible laser beams in the infrared part of the spectrum," Zuckerberg says.

FSO would allow the company to dramatically boost the speed of Internet connections provided by other platforms such as satellites. Its speed is on par with fiber-optic networks, Facebook says. But the narrow optical beams must be pointed very precisely. "The level of accuracy required is the equivalent of needing to hit a dime from 10 miles away, or hit the Statue of Liberty from California," he says.

They also require "line of sight" visibility, meaning they won't work well in bad weather. That makes FSO a bit of a long shot, but Facebook has hired "world experts" in FSO and will try to keep improving the technology, Zuckerberg said.

Drones, on the other hand, are one of the major areas where Facebook is focused. Flying at 65,000 feet and powered by solar panels, drones can broadcast a powerful communications signal that covers an area the size of a city with a medium population density.

Facebook recently said it was bringing on team members from Ascenta, a U.K.-based company that created early versions of the Zephyr solar-powered unmanned aircraft. Facebook is building its first drones now and expects to have an initial version working in the near future, Zuckerberg said.

 

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