Facebook's Broadband By Drones Latest In Very Long Line Of Unfulfilled Aerial Hype
from the hot-air dept
Apparently, if you just mention the word drones you’re pretty much guaranteed a ton of press coverage, at least based on the reaction to Amazon’s immensely unlikely (for most people) Amazon Prime Air R&D effort. It’s unsurprising then to see Facebook receive a lot of attention for what may be an equally unlikely endeavor: delivering broadband to developing countries by drone as part of the company’s developing world Internet.org initiative. Rumors have emerged that Facebook is in talks with drone maker Titan Aerospace, with the hope of beaming broadband to users from the stratosphere:
“Titan Aerospace says that its solar-powered drones are capable of staying in the air for five years at a time. And when used as a communication hub, Titan Aerospace says that a single drone could create a voice and data network with “the reach of over one hundred terrestrial cell towers.”…Titan Aerospace’s entire production would go toward Internet.org. The initial goal is reportedly to build 11,000 of its Solara 60 model drones for the initiative.”
Each time one of these broadband by X (drone, plane, blimp, hot air balloon, goose) ideas gets proposed interest is greatly piqued, ignoring the long list of companies (Iridium, Globalstar, etc.) backed by heavy hitters (Bill Gates, Paul Allen) that have tried similar efforts but failed, often spectacularly. Like Sanswire Networks, for example, which pitched the deployment of “stratellites” for the better part of a decade to an unskeptical press without ever fielding a substantive product to show for it.
Please note that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to dream about new solutions to old problems. It just seems like most of these efforts are driven by the false idea that you can simply skip the blood sweat and tears involved in building real networks in the real world and just arrive at connectivity magic, if your engineers are clever enough and your PR videos are sexy enough.
On one hand the appeal of developing a technology that flies above the status quo, monopoly markets and the heads of regulators is obvious. But this isn’t the first alternative aerial broadband rodeo, and history is starting to gain weight from the number of these projects that failed from ballooning costs, tricky technology and unreasonable expectations. Though he almost buries his point underneath a clumsy and misguided swipe at “Libertarians,” Iain Marlow at the Globe and Mail points out that these loud efforts to “fix” developing nations with our Western creativity just wind up being kind of stupid after a while:
“But every once in a while, international aid in the form of technology metastasizes into something particularly stupid – like Kony2012 – and the ideas gain outsized attention (and funds and credence) by playing on simplistic assumptions by people who know absolutely nothing about the situation on the ground. There are thousands of smart Africans already working in technology in Africa, and doing amazing things, and I don’t hear many of them talking about balloons and drones (except those other sorts of drones).”
The point could be made that it makes sense to help those real world, blood, sweat and tear efforts to shore up traditional wireless communications networks, as opposed to throwing yet additional billions at new, slightly too clever technologies that often prove too costly to be viable for what they actually wind up offering. Also, giant drones tend to hurt when they fall out of the sky:
“Drones are much more likely to be able to maintain position. But both they and the balloons are going to get pushed around a lot by stratospheric winds, which can get up to 100 miles per hour.”…”One danger I can think of is one of these drones falling into a populated area,” says (Skycatch CEO Chris Sanz). At 165 feet wide and weighing in at 350 pounds, a Solara could do a lot of damage if it fell out of the sky.”
You also have to wonder exactly which countries are horribly excited to have a permanent flock of drones doing lazy circles overhead in the wake of the NSA revelations. Again, not to say that research shouldn’t be done in this important area, but at some point you have to wonder just how many boring, old cellular towers could have been built while we spend seemingly-unlimited billions and an ocean of manpower on proving not only that we care, but that we’re so very, very clever.