Pop quiz: how do you bring the Internet to underdeveloped parts of the world?
The answer, in Google’s case, is with blimps.
Yes, blimps—the same ones that float over football stadiums on game days, and which fell out of favor as passenger transports after a certain incident in New Jersey—could help Google “transmit signals to an area of hundreds of square miles,” according to a new report in The Wall Street Journal.
That’s just one idea mulled by Google executives. The search-engine giant is also reportedly considering some sort of satellite-based network, as well as converting unused channels in the broadcast television spectrum (traditionally known as “white space”) for wireless-broadband use. “Google has been working on building an ecosystem of new microprocessors and low-cost smartphones” that would connect to the new networks, the Journal added.
Google has been playing with the airwaves-for-Internet idea for some time. In March, it launched a trial program in the Cape Town area of South Africa, giving ten schools wireless broadband via unused white space. “During the trial, we will attempt to show that broadband can be offered over white spaces without interfering with licensed spectrum holders,” read a note posted to the Official Google Africa Blog at the time. “To prevent interference with other channels, the network uses Google’s spectrum database to determine white space availability.”
The blog posting suggested that white space technology is already available in the United States “for licensed exempt uses,” and that one U.K. regulator is developing “a model regulatory framework” for converting spectrum to broadband use. “We hope the results of the [South Africa] trial will drive similar regulatory developments in South Africa and other African countries,” it added.
It’s easy to argue that bringing the Internet—particularly high-speed broadband—to underserved areas of the world is a good thing. But it’s also easy to see the darker underbelly to such an infrastructure project: if Google controls the infrastructure providing that Internet, then the company controls the flow of information into those areas. More people using the Internet creates more opportunities to serve ads; and as those people deposit more of their personal information online, Google could turn around and sell that data—even in aggregated, anonymous form—to the highest bidder.
In other words, if Google’s Internet plans move forward, it could very well kick off a delicate dance between the company and regulators—with the connectivity of a good portion of the world hanging in the balance.
Image: Isafmedia / CC BY 2.0