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The United Nations made it official back in 2011: Access to the Internet is a human right, and blocking that access is a human-rights violation. Yet four years later, half the world—about three billion people—still have no Internet at all. And those who are connected sometimes experience speeds that feel almost like a denial of access, especially for a service that comes to most people with a hefty monthly bill.
Better speed is on the way through fiber optics, now the province of alternative ISPs (internet service providers), which offer service at similar costs but speeds between seven and 20 times faster than those offered by standard Internet cable packages. Chattanooga, Tenn., has rolled out its own community-owned Internet, which offers fiber-optic connectivity at 1,000 megabits/second. Compare that to the speed on the computer you’re using right now, and you’ll get why fiber is hot. And by severing connectivity from the private sector and running its Internet in the public interest, Chattanooga’s network, which runs on the city-owned power grid, will reach people who could never have afforded it before, notably low-income school kids, in their own homes.
Like Chattanooga, several other midsize American cities have seen the benefits of fiber thanks to Google, which launched its first program in Kansas City. Since then, there have been pilot programs in Durham, Austin, and Nashville, among other places. Installing a fiber-optic Internet isn’t easy—among other complications, it can require restructuring a city’s entire power grid—but the payoff can be priceless: Google Fiber’s most basic 5-megabit speed Internet is actually free.
So much for the connected. What about the three billion of us in the developing and underdeveloped world who have no Internet at all? Here’s where it gets otherworldly.
Multiple entities are pursuing plans to base the Internet in outer space. Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and SpaceX has already raised $1 billion in capital for a space-based Internet venture. OneWeb, a company founded by Greg Wyler, who wired Rwanda with cell and Internet service and developed Africa’s first 3G cellular network, plans to launch satellites into orbit about 5,000 miles up, close enough to reduce the down-and-up time to about 150 milliseconds, about the speed of fiber optic. The catch is that each satellite will serve less area at that altitude, so he’ll have to send up a lot of them, to say the least.
Another startup, Outnet, has received funding from the U.K’s Space Agency to put up small, breadbox-sized satellites, called CubeSats, to offer the Internet over radio waves.
And, of course, Google is on the cutting-edge here too, with Project Loon, which is bringing Internet to disconnected parts of the world with solar-powered balloons that travel by wind current and offer Internet via wireless LTE networks.
All of which goes to confirm what the U.N. concluded years ago: To be disconnected in the 21st century is to live in darkness. These and other projects suggest it will not be long before the dawn.
Next: A Self Driving America