Connect: How technology is changing communication

How to Bring the Internet to Everyone

More internet access could mean everything to people in rural areas, and the way we could deliver it is something unexpected.

In our hyper-connected world, when the internet goes down, your ability to get things done goes down, too. For the 34 million Americans who don’t have access to high-speed broadband—23 million of whom live in rural America—that’s an everyday reality that is keeping them from taking advantage of the internet’s vast resources.

“The potential multiplier effect of not just having digital access, but then also being part of the socially and economically excluded, gets magnified,” according to Nicol Turner-Lee, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.

Fiber-optic cable can cost up to $40,000 per mile to install, and the challenges that come with delivering internet to more remote areas can keep speeds slow. But engineers and tech companies are rethinking the way they’re going to get internet to the people who have long gone without it.

Exploring what happens when possibility becomes reality.

One of those solutions might lie in giant internet balloons that float on the edge of space, also known as Alphabet’s Project Loon. A telecommunications company would transmit internet to a network of solar-powered high-flying balloons, which would then transmit that internet to users back on Earth. So far, Project Loon’s balloons have been able to deliver connection speeds up to 10 Mbps, with each balloon’s coverage area encompassing almost 2,000 square miles. They're also planning to fly balloons over hurricane-struck Puerto Rico for up to six months, replacing cell-phone towers that were destroyed by wind and rain.

Facebook has also joined in, developing an unmanned aircraft known as Aquila. It’s powered by solar cells and efficient motors, and will eventually float 60,000 miles above the Earth for up to 90 days at a time. A series of infrared laser beams will be used to connect the drones, transmitting data to and from below at fiber-optic speeds. The Aquila drone recently completed its second test flight in May.

As these technologies bring more Americans online, Turner-Lee said connectivity is making it easier for them to engage in the conveniences our society offers. “Whether they be government services, commerce, health care, or education, more and more people are migrating to the web to take advantage of this content. That is radically creating more efficiencies,” she said.

That could even help prepare the U.S. for the future of work, particularly when it comes to rural and underserved communities. Recent research has shown that improving internet access can help boost incomes, lower unemployment, and create jobs. The possibilities for remote education and small business and commerce when fast, reliable internet is an inexpensive reality are both social and economic. Projects like the internet balloon deliver internet without requiring residents to pay for that last mile of fiber-optic connectivity.

It’s one thing we must do to address the gradual decline of manual labor occupations in the heart of the country as automation and alternative energy rise in prominence and priority. One day, rural workers won’t be able to rely on things like mining and agricultural jobs, and it’s essential that we open the way for further work re-education opportunities. While bringing that “last mile” online is a challenge, Turner-Lee said with collaboration between the public and private sectors, the United States can bring high-speed internet to everyone.

“It involves educational professionals, it involves telecom professionals, it involves labor professionals trying to figure out how do we prioritize digital access in this country to maintain the level of competitiveness of our people and our places.”

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of CONNECT, our discussion about how emerging technologies could change how we communicate and bring unprecedented numbers of people online.