Alphabet’s Project Loon has officially launched in Puerto Rico in an effort to bring basic internet connectivity to the island after its infrastructure was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. The project utilizes helium air balloons and was able to utilize working ground connections to relay internet service to more than 100,000 unconnected inhabitants.
Speaking to Engadget, the head of Project Loon Alastair Westgarth stated, “In times of crisis, being able to communicate with loved ones, emergency services, and critical information is key. We hope that the connectivity Project Loon has provided over the last few weeks has been helpful, and would like to thank AT&T, T-Mobile, and our government partners who made these efforts possible.”
High Tech Solutions
This is the fastest that Project Loon has ever been launched. The balloons set off from Winnemucca, Nevada and the team used machine learning algorithms to fly them to Puerto Rican airspace. And, while the project was not able to provide connectivity to the entire island, it is still an improvement to the territory’s decimated infrastructure and isn’t an indicator of shortcomings in Project Loon’s capabilities.
Alphabet isn’t the only company that is looking to use their technologies to help rebuild Puerto Rico. AT&T is also helping to reinstate wireless service with its “Flying COW” (Cell on Wings) drones. The devices helped to deliver cell phone service, including LTE wireless, to up to 8,000 people in San Juan, the territory’s capital.
Elon Musk’s Tesla additionally sent hundreds of batteries, including Powerwalls and higher capacity Powerpacks, to help get power to where it was needed most, including a children’s hospital in the capital.
Musk also spoke with Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, about using the company’s technology to completely overhaul the island’s electricity grid, which was already crumbling long before Maria touched down. However, critics fear that such a move would be more disruptive to the Puerto Rican power sector, which is currently run by government-owned utilities.
Still, these high-tech solutions are helping to get Puerto Rico back up and running. It is now up to the people of Puerto Rico to decide what technologies will best benefit them throughout this rebuilding period and in the future.
At the historic Willard Hotel where a little over 100 years ago Alexander Graham Bell demoed the coast-to-coast telephone call, Microsoft announced on Monday its latest effort to bring internet access to American rural areas. The project makes use of unused television broadcast channels — which are called “white spaces.”
Back in 2010, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted rules that opened up TV white spaces for broadband use. “Microsoft itself has considerable experience with this spectrum, having deployed 20 TV white spaces projects in 17 countries that have served 185,000 users,” Brad Smith, the company’s president, wrote in a press release.
Now, through Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative, the tech giant aims to open up broadband access to 2 million people in rural areas in America by 2022. Microsoft has 12 partners working in 12 states — including Arizona, Kansas, New York, and Virginia — for its TV White Spaces projects, which will be up and running in the next 12 months.
This project will provide rural Americans with internet that is a fifth of the cost of fiber cable-based internet and about half the cost of 4G networks.
Bridging the Digital Divide
After the United Nations declared internet access as a basic human right, a number of tech industry heavyweights have stepped up to the task of bringing internet connectivity to the world’s remote areas. There are several other similar initiatives to bring internet access to all of North America, including a couple in New York and Canada.
Social media giant Facebook has been working on its Aquila project for the past two years. The idea is to beam internet to far flung areas using Facebook’s solar-powered Aquila drones, which recently completed a second successful test flight.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is approaching the problem with a different strategy. The plan is to improve internet access around the world by launching 4,000 satellites in orbit. SpaceX completed its applications to the FCC for this global internet network back in November 2016. This plan seems to have inspired satellite internet startup OneWeb — backed by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, Qualcomm, and Airbus — which would launch 720 satellites to build a global wireless internet network.
It seems unthinkable that in such a day and age, where internet is available even through your smartphones and wearable gadgets, there are still 4 billion people who lack such access. Hopefully, efforts like Microsoft’s will soon bridge this information divide.
Facebook’s solar-powered Aquila drone completed its second successful flight Thursday near Yuma, Arizona. It stayed aloft for 1 hour and 46 minutes, cruising over the desert and gathering data the team will use to optimize its efficiency moving forward. After the flight was over, the drone landed smoothly without incident, Mark Zuckerberg reported in a Facebook post.
This was the latest step in the Aquila project which will eventually see an entire fleet of the drones staying in flight for months at a time. The unmanned drones will need to be completely optimized to make this kind of longer term performance possible, so these test flights are critically important. Zuckerberg said that Facebook intends to use the drone to increase the world’s access to the internet.
“When Aquila is ready, it will be a fleet of solar-powered planes that will beam internet connectivity across the world,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook. “Today, more than half the world’s population — 4 billion people — still can’t access the internet. One day, Aquila will help change that.”
Aquila’s wingspan is wider than a Boeing 737, but it weighs less than 455 kg (1,000 pounds). To stay aloft, Aquila’s solar panels collect power during the day and stores enough in a battery for the dark hours. It uses about 5,000 W of power at its cruising altitude, which will be about 18,300 meters (60,000 feet). Aquila cruises at a deliberately slow speed of about 129 km/h (80 m/h) to maximize efficiency.
Right now the Aquila team is working to make the craft lighter and trim down its power consumption. They also aim to more accurately assess how much power it will take to operate during the different altitudes and temperatures of take off, flight, and landing, and how those power demands will affect battery size, latitude range, solar panel performance, and seasonal performance. Additional test flights will also allow the team to assess actual in-flight dynamics and see how the massive drone batteries stress the large, flexible wings.
The Aquila fleet is just one way Facebook is working to connect people with technology. Zuckerberg has also revealed that the company is working on a brain-computer interface that will let us communicate using just our minds.
A satellite internet startup called OneWeb wants to make internet access available to all. From rural neighborhoods to completely remote communities, the company want to make sure that the internet isn’t just a luxury afforded to those who live in certain locations. Thanks in part to backing from Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, as well as Airbus and Qualcomm, OneWeb hopes to launch 720 satellites that would provide internet to places on Earth that are normally far out of reach.
And, in a great step forward in this ambitious goal, the startup has officially received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to begin this work for rural areas in the United States.
Today the FCC took steps to enable OneWeb to provide service. #OpenMtgFCC 2/2
So, while this won’t immediately provide internet access for all Earthly inhabitants, it’s a major start. Looking ahead, OneWeb intends to provide access for “every connected school” by 2022.
Major Steps Forward
According to the United Nations, internet access is a basic human right. We are lightyears beyond the age where it was considered a futuristic luxury. The internet is now how we are educated, shop, keep up with current events, communicate with family members, find resources, and much more. In fact, some predict that relatively soon, online education could become much more commonplace. This would allow those in impoverished areas or who are unable to attend school traditionally to complete their education.
While necessities as basic as water are still not available to all, improving internet access remains an important concern. Aside from companies like OneWeb, other big names in tech, like Elon Musk are committed to ensuring internet access, and the boundless educational opportunities that come with it, will one day available to all.
Cash transactions are disappearing around the world as more networks adapt to touch-and-go mobile and contactless card technology. Some businesses just don’t accept cash anymore as the cash economy slips in status on its descent into extinction. Various cities around the world are pushing for all-digital economies. As they progress towards that goal, that means spare change and singles that would be tossed into donation boxes, handed to people on the street, and offered up as tips, will disappear.
What will the cashless economy mean for the poorest people in society? Are we moving toward a class-stratification that is even more sharply divided, with those at the lowest echelons of our cities excluded from commercial life and a mainstream existence due to their inability to participate digitally?
In November 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India announced that 500 and 1000 rupee notes would be removed from circulation (as of this writing, 500 rupees were equivalent to about US $7.75). This move was intended to force demonetization of the country, pushing it toward a cashless economy and forcing the untaxed corruption of the “black” economy into the light. The move also inadvertently moved the question of enabling access to the digitized world of consumerism for the poor to the top of the queue.
Part of the answer for Modi is creating “smart”, connected cities with digitized public services, e-pay for utility bills, and digitally-purchased services such as train tickets. This works well when you’re buying from the government, but when you’re a small vendor hoping to sell your wares, it’s trickier. Card readers are an outlay some can’t afford, and using mobile phones to operate Paytm payment transfers is proving difficult for many.
The cashless revolution is far more primed in the EU, where 9 of the top 15 “most digital-ready” countries are, according to a report by Fung Global Retail & Technology. The report cites Sweden as holding the pole position — most likely to go entirely cashless first—perhaps by 2030 — the KTH Royal Institute of Technology’s Niklas Arvidsson tells The Guardian. However, demographic gaps persist even in Sweden, where older, rural people are less likely to be on board.
All over the world, urbanites of the middle and upper classes prefer digital payment options, and are increasingly avoiding consumer options that are less convenient. Meanwhile, those “stuck” in the cash economy stay there. Wealth is, and has been, the controlling factor in who moves into the evolving digital economy — and who gets left behind.
Regardless of the country, the gap between the rich and poor widens as the cash economy gasps on its deathbed. In Amsterdam, the street magazine Z! — which is sold by city’s homeless — is on its deathbed too, as its sellers are struggling to find cash customers. Although Z! trialled iZettle card readers in 2013, card payments didn’t work for them; largely because of their complexity. They needed to carry their magazines, mobile phones, and a card reader — a challenge for many small businesses, nonetheless those that operate entirely on the streets. However, this limitation is already overcome by newer technologies: vendors could easily use ID codes on badges with lanyards for hands-free sales. Access is the real issue—as it usually is for the poor.
Kenyan citizens use a cashless system connected to cheap mobile devices called m-Pesa. The system lets people store funds digitally and transfer money by sending text messages; all without opening and maintaining a conventional bank account. EcoCash, a similar text-based service, is thriving in Zimbabwe.
Consult Hyperion director of innovation Dave Birch told The Guardian that advocating for the cash economy on behalf of the poor doesn’t help anyone. “If you keep people trapped in a cash economy, you leave them to pay higher prices for everything, you leave them struggling to access credit, and more vulnerable to theft,” he says. “We’re going to replace cash with electronic platforms,” Birch adds.
“I don’t think poverty or being unbanked is necessarily a barrier, because everyone has a phone. Given the technology we have, we can develop new ways of moving digital cash around, even on the most basic of phones.”
The real obstacle is to make sure that platforms evolving along with smart city and cashless economy initiatives are inclusive. Not only that, but they must be connected in ways that make them accessible to everyone — which means finding a common payment ecosystem that’s workable.
Bitcoin and other digital currencies based on blockchain technology provide a viable money storage and spending alternative for people who don’t have bank accounts. The vision of money economies being central and universal is actually a fairly First World generalization; in many parts of the world, the money/currency economy has never been as strong or ubiquitous as it is in the U.S. This is great news, because it suggests that once we realize it, economies are more flexible than we may think. Ultimately, there are multiple options available to us.
“Money already works fairly well in America and Europe,” bitcoin thinker and digital currency innovator Jed McCaleb told Wired. “Today, the promise of these digital currencies is most seen in the developing world.”
Networks like McCaleb’s Stellar connect micro-finance institutions (MFIs) digitally provide bank-like services, including loans, and allow for the transfer and receipt of money. These services are particularly needed by people without access to banks. Companies like Stellar offer digital infrastructure for exchanging money, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be currency. The next step is to harness the power of blockchain technology to allow people to engage in these transactions without needing the MFIs, which may add costs to the process without adding real value.
Founder and CEO of blockchain application BanQu, Ashish Gadnis, points out to Devex Newswire that it is expensive to be poor in the developing world. As it stands, there are billions of people living in extreme poverty. For Gadnis, this is because, “multiple organizations interact with the poor in silos.” In other words, even a person who is the “named beneficiary” for multiple nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, and social enterprises can’t break the cycle they’re in due to lack of access.
A farmer living in poverty in the developing world does not “own their own identity” with regard to the organizations and institutions they interact with. They may get seed subsidies from the government in one form, participate in capacity building in another, use m-Pesa and their phone to buy supplies, and have to court investors on their own financial turf. The result is multiple data silos and lack of access.
For Gadnis, the solution to this problem is putting leverage and access back into the hands of the people by making governments, NGOs, social organizations, financial institutions, and others operate using blockchain — a distributed ledger that gives people an economic identity that is transferable across systems and that they control. Gadnis sees this as the key to economic resilience in a time of tumultuous change.
While blockchain technology pushes cash out and digitization in, it also presents opportunities for improved access. This is another salient example of why internet access for all is a core human right. Going completely cashless without enabling these kinds of solutions will widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. We need to find a way to ensure no one is left behind.
Thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Broadband for All” initiative, New York is about to be the first state to bring broadband internet to every resident’s household—and it’s going to happen by 2018. This is one of the most aggressive expansions of broadband in the nation, with each provider offering 100 mbps of speed for $60 a month.
This ambitious project tackles some of the many remaining rural areas of the U.S. which pose a special challenge for these kinds of services. Lack of access is a serious problem across the nation, but is far worse in rural and poverty-stricken areas; the FCC estimates that about 39 percent of rural America lacks broadband access. Around 30 percent of the total populations of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Montana do not have broadband access.
Although President Trump has promised to focus on rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, he has largely ignored the issue of broadband access, although it is just as critical. The United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband connectivity, according to a 2011 study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, behind Canada and South Korea, among others. Furthermore, Trump’s choice of Ajit Pai to head the FCC is likely to mean fewer lifeline subsidies for broadband—if any—and the demotion of internet access from its Title II classification. This means Internet access will no longer have its hard-won utility status, even though it is every bit as necessary to modern life as power, heat, and water.
Access Isn’t Optional Anymore
Internet access is no longer a luxury; it’s a human right and a necessity. The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a non-binding resolution in June 2016 that condemns any intentional disruption or removal of internet access for citizens. The UNHRC sees internet access as essential to the right of free speech in the world as we now experience it. Opposing countries included China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—three countries not exactly known on the global stage as champions of free speech—as well as India and South Africa.
Closer to home, the New York initiative is based on the recognition that broadband access is critical to life as we know it today. “In today’s technology-driven world, access to high-speed internet is essential to building strong communities, growing the economy and supporting our everyday lives,” Governor Cuomo said.
Even small businesses in rural areas of New York have jumped at the chance to have broadband access, and consider it essential to their businesses. Two Stones Farm, a small goat farm, used its newfound broadband access to create an online store. “I look at it this way: it’s very much like electricity was at one time,” said owner Alan White. “Electricity would have never come to our valley if it was based strictly on population. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity that we need to operate.”
The majority of the job market is based on using the internet: applications, e-mail, LinkedIn, and even Skype interviews are all important pieces of the process. Technology is becoming more integrated into schools, and students who don’t have the internet at home are at a disadvantage when they can’t access resources online. Banking online is becoming the norm rather than an oddity, with many people never visiting their bank’s physical location. The world is increasingly reliant on being connected to the internet, and rural areas are too often left in the dust.
Broadband can transform rural life, and it already is in New York. It’s time for it to come to the rest of the United States.
Canada is making some major moves to ensure that every citizen in the country has access to fast broadband speeds. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced this week that it was setting up a fund of $750 million available over the next five years to expand internet access.
The CRTC is implementing a standard of universal availability of home internet with download speeds of at least 50Mbps and upload speeds of 10Mbps with the option of unlimited data. In doing so, the Canadian government is declaring that broadband internet is a basic telecommunications service, akin to phone service.
The fund will be used to finance projects to ensure these standards are met. Currently, 18 percent of Canadians do not have access to internet speeds at these standards. According to CBC News, “The CRTC’s goal is to reduce that to 10 percent by 2021 and down to zero in the next 10 to 15 years.”
Many remote areas of the country do not have this kind of access to the internet, if at all. The main goal of the initiative is to connect these rural and remote communities. Ten percent of the money is being allocated specifically to communities that depend on satellites to access the internet.
The decision is being celebrated by non-profit media advocacy group OpenMedia. The group described it as “a game-changer for rural and underserved communities across Canada where internet access is either unavailable or unaffordable.”
OpenMedia believes that lack of internet access is actually an important factor in terms of equality: “This digital divide doesn’t just prevent vulnerable groups from accessing the internet. This divide actually perpetuates and — worse yet — accentuates problems of inequality.”
The internet is an integral part of the daily lives of so many people across the globe. Access to so many opportunities and so much information is available only to those with the internet. From completing job applications to paying credit card bills to reading the news, so many things we used to do in person or using a physical medium are now done digitally, so living without the internet inherently puts a person at a disadvantage.
Back in June, the United Nations passed a non-binding resolution that condemns countries that intentionally take away or otherwise disrupt the internet access of their citizens. The resolution also emphasized the importance of educating girls in technological fields.
In the United States, President Obama has said,“Today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” but as of last year, fewer than half of the poorest homes in the United States had internet access, according to a White House report. While the U.S. has made some small pushes to remedy this inequality, none have been on the scale of what Canada has proposed this week. Let’s hope more countries follow their lead, and we can soon bring internet access to all of the world’s citizens.