By Tom Simonite
Facebook and Google compete intensely for your time online and for the ad dollars of corporations. But now the two companies are collaborating on efforts to use balloons and drone aircraft to expand Internet access to the four billion people that don’t have it.
Documents filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission show that both companies are pushing for international law to be modified to make it easier to use aircraft around 20 kilometers above the earth, in the stratosphere, to provide Internet access.
Google has been working for several years on balloons that float in the stratosphere and function as aerial cell towers to provide Internet access in areas with poor infrastructure (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2015: Project Loon”). Facebook is developing solar-powered drones the size of airliners for the same purpose, although they would link to ground stations, not directly to mobile devices (see “Meet Facebook’s Stratospheric Internet Drone”).
At the Solve conference at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Monday, representatives of the competing projects said they are now working together, although they wouldn’t say exactly how.
In a session dedicated to the question of how to give everyone on earth access to the Internet, the companies were asked why they didn’t collaborate instead of running parallel efforts to achieve the same thing. “You shouldn’t presume that we’re not already working together,” said Yael Maguire, who leads Facebook’s Connectivity Lab working on Internet access. Rich DeVaul, who was leader of Google’s balloon project when it first began in 2011, confirmed that the leaders of the two projects are talking. “I’m looking forward to collaborative possibilities as well as some friendly competition,” he said.
Maguire later declined to tell MIT Technology Review what exactly the two companies are combining forces on. “We are collaborating on certain things,” he said.
Facebook and Google’s projects overlap in many ways, not just their end goals. For example, both companies are working on using lasers to transfer data rapidly, whether between stratospheric balloons, in the case of Google, or between drones and from drones to the ground, in the case of Facebook. Google also has a project of its own investigating drones for Internet access, although it, like Facebook’s project, is at a much earlier stage than the balloon effort.