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Summary:

WSJ reports Google has ambitions of connecting a billion new people to the internet using a combination of white space, satellite and aerial technologies. Given those technologies’ limitations, though, a billion is a stretch.

You might have thought Google’s gigabit fiber plans in the U.S. were big, but Google may have even bigger broadband ambitions in the developing world. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Google is working with governments and local regulators in countries all over Africa and Southeast Asia to build wireless networks that would connect the unconnected.

The Journal, citing unnamed sources, said Google plans to make use of white spaces, the spectrum between TV transmissions that many governments are allocating for wireless broadband use, as well as satellites and aerial transmitters located on balloons or blimps. Finally, Google is developing low-cost devices and processors that will allow even the most resource-limited populace to take advantage of those networks.

whitespaceThe Journal states Google aims to connect a billion or more people to the internet through the effort. That strikes me as a big exaggeration. If Google is working with the types of technologies the Journal listed, it would be working with very limited capacities. Satellite broadband provides a finite bandwidth at extremely high cost, and aerial platforms would be constrained by their backhaul – you can’t run fiber to a tower suspended in the sky.

White spaces definitely show promise, and Google has already begun trials of the technology in South Africa. Google may even be weighing the use of white spaces in its U.S. broadband strategy. But in most countries there’s a limited amount of spectrum available for white space transmission, and in general its use is limited to rural areas where there’s less chance of it interfering with TV signals. The Journal stated that Google is focusing its efforts primarily in rural areas, but if Google really plans to connect a billion unconnected people, it would also need to hit urban centers.

Still, even if Google’s plans is a quarter as ambitious as the Journal claims, it could have an enormous impact on the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa, 3G and 4G cellular is practically non-existent, which has led carriers like Airtel to invest heavily in cheaper unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi, and wireline broadband available only commercial centers.

Using these technologies, Google won’t be able to provide the broadband connections we in the U.S. accustomed to at home, work or on wireless networks, but for millions of people Google could provide their first internet connections.

White space image courtesy of Flickr user Cillian Storm.

  1. regarding low latency, broadband satellite, Google is invested in O3b which will launch the first of a fleet of Middle Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites capable of “fiber like” links to cell towers, data centers, schools, hospitals etc. Google can Interconnect O3b ( “other 3 billion”) earth station to TVWS, WiFi, WiMax and other radio communications technologies to interconnect many UN/under served areas of the world into the WWW. Not far out at all!

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Friday, May 24, 2013

      I hear what you’re saying, PC, but those MEO satellites only support a total capacity of 12 Gbps. We’re not too far from the point where a three-sector LTE cell could support nearly 1 Gbps of total capacity. Even with a dozen O3b birds in the sky, satellite is going to be a limited and expensive proposition for supporting the emerging markets. I’m not saying they won’t be important for providing baseline connectivity. But try dividing 144 Gbps (12 satellites) by 3 billion. You basically wind up with zero.

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      1. Barnassey Thomas Friday, May 24, 2013

        You are only thinking of speed not access. if they roll out 3G tech to a good amount of these areas people will be happy.

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        1. Kevin Fitchard Friday, May 24, 2013

          No Barnassey, I’m not only thinking about speed. You just can’t deliver 3G speeds to a 1 billion people with a satellite constellation either. 3 billion is an enormous number of people, as is 1 billion. I imagine Google is very realistic about what it can do with these technologies. I suspect the Journal (or whomever spoke to the Journal) isn’t.

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  2. Goggle has a whole lot of data points for what sorts of content are accessed, when, where and how, and how much of these can/should be cached locally.
    https://peering.google.com/about/ggc.html
    White spaces is about having a “last-mile cable replacement” solution, in this case to WiFi hotspots, and to closer Google caches. O3B and the like would be very useful to update these caches. Throw in YouTube for good measure, and the ad dollars would probably fund all of this infrastructure.

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  3. According to a GSMA report there were 31 countries with 3G networks in sub-Saharan African as of 2012

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  4. Johnny Blight Saturday, May 25, 2013

    More Nigerian scam emails brought to you by Google. Great.

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  5. Marei Alawbathani Sunday, May 26, 2013

    what about poor arab countries like Yemen, are they in the plan?

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  6. Juuhhii Agrawal Sunday, May 26, 2013

    Google getting bigger n bigger by the day…………
    #hacktik

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  7. Eyes and clicks. Eyes and clicks. Eyes and clicks: Google’s bread and butter. More eyes and clicks, more bread and butter.

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  8. I am impressed with the content you provided. I want to thank you for this informative article. I enjoyed each aspect of it and I will be waiting for the new updates For Mi-Fi.

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  9. Regardless of how far-fetched the idea and execution of the idea may be, the idea itself is extraordinary. It’s a great effort towards leveling the playing field and sharing the wealth.

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