X Labs will provide 2000 FSOC links and required technical support to deploy them. Each FSOC link will provide 20Gbps wireless Internet connection up to a distance of 20km. FSOC links will help bridge the gaps between major access points like cell-towers and Wi-Fi hotspots, thereby servicing thousands of people each.

… And drones

Facebook hopes to achieve a similar feat by using solar-powered drones. Colloquially referred to as a drone, Aquila is more of an advanced aircraft that weighs over 450kg and has a longer wingspan than a Boeing 747. Its wings are made of cured carbon fibre, which enables accurate moulding to achieve the unique shape of wings.

Facebook’s Internet-providing aircraft Aquila waiting to take-off on its test flight
Facebook’s Internet-providing aircraft Aquila waiting to take-off on its test flight (Source: Facebook.com)

The aircraft will carry communications equipment as the payload. Signals beamed from it will be received by small towers and dishes that will convert them into Wi-Fi or LTE communication signals. A couple of aircrafts positioned properly will work together to provide connectivity to remote areas, extending the reach of existing telecom networks without setting up new towers, laying cables, etc.

Much to the delight of Facebook’s UK-based aerospace lab, Aquila successfully completed a test flight in Arizona in mid-2017. Following a failed attempt that crash landed in December 2016, the team improved the drone by fitting more sensors, new spoilers, a horizontal propeller stopping system and so on. These improvements helped the drone to stay in the air for close to two hours, reaching a height of roughly 915 metres (3000 feet).

The challenge before Facebook is to make the aircraft stay in the air for months, something that nobody has done so far! They hope that ultimately their solar-powered aircraft will stay up at a height of 18.3-27km (60,000-90,000 feet) for at least three months, providing communication to a 50km communications radius using free space laser communications technology.

In a press report following the successful test, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook said: “We successfully gathered a lot of data to help us optimise Aquila’s efficiency. No one has ever built an unmanned airplane that will fly for months at a time, so we need to tune every detail to get this right.”

What’s Microsoft up to?

In rural areas, television seems to have spread its wings faster than the Internet. Even in remote villages that have power supply only for a few hours, we hear the television running. In states like Tamil Nadu, governments have promised and delivered televisions to citizens, claiming these to be useful for education and awareness!

Considering all this, Microsoft is hoping to use unused television spectrum or white space to bring broadband to rural areas across the world, including the USA where, believe it or not, more than 30 million people still do not have broadband Internet access.

White space refers to unused spectrum in the ultra-high frequency (UHF) television bands. In other words, this space is the gap between TV channels. Using a database that specifies white spaces and white space radios, local ISPs can utilise the unused spectrum to provide broadband access. Being in the 600MHz frequency range, these non-line-of-sight wireless signals can travel further with less interference than Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. They can reach nooks and corners, across difficult terrain, hills, buildings, etc, making white space the best technology to reach rural communities. Research by Carlson Wireless Technologies has shown that white space Internet can cover a 10km diameter, which is a hundred times further than Wi-Fi.

Since the FCC allowed unlicenced public use of white spaces in 2010, Microsoft and other companies have developed the hardware, software and industry-wide standards to use it for providing Internet connectivity. Microsoft has deployed over 20 TV white space projects in 17 countries, serving over 185,000 users. Citing USA as an example, the company claims that by using a combination of technologies like white spaces and satellites, a country can bridge the rural broadband gap at 80 per cent lower cost than with only fibre cables.

5G can be a big help

An article in theinstitute.ieee.org puts forth 5G as the solution to rural connectivity. It says that increasing the range of telecommunication cells and installing massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) antenna systems at both the transmitter and receiver can help provide connectivity to remote and sparsely populated areas.

Currently, even if people do manage to get a signal 100km away from a base station, they get only a speed of around 10kbps, which is barely enough for voice calls and text messages. With 5G, cells within a radius of 100km will hopefully get at least 100Mbps.

Telecom operators can further increase the transmission power of networks, and hence the speed in remote areas, by using massive MIMO antenna systems at the transmitter and receiver. Further, distributed antenna systems connected via optical fibres will help boost the reliability of 5G connections.

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