29 Mar 2014

Google and Facebook fight for web supremacy with drones and balloons

Facebook’s announcement that it is exploring the use of drones to spread internet access around the world is another illustration of how the world’s largest internet companies are vying to dominate the very architecture behind the web.

As part of its internet.org project, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it was exploring the idea of using drones, satellites and lasers to give internet access to remote areas.

Solar-powered, pilotless craft could stay in the air, potentially for years, with the advantage that they can be pulled down for repairs, unlike satellites which are expensive to launch and retrieve.

29_facebook_droneAn artist’s impression of a drone that could provide internet access (picture: Facebook)


Google has also talked of plans to use high-altitude hot air balloons to provide internet access, under the appropriately-titled Project Loon.

The win from these pie-in-the-sky projects is clear: more internet users probably means more Google and Facebook users, and therefore more eyeballs to put adverts in front of.

But, as I’ve blogged before, there is now a concerted attempt by these companies, who traditionally have provided internet services, to run parts of the very infrastructure that supports the web.

At the moment, that task has been left to giants like Cisco who turn a healthy profit by beavering away in the background to make sure our status updates, tweets and clicks get to the right place. It means there’s been a separation between the platform (the internet) and the services provided through it (social networking, search, etc).

The risk is that, as companies which specialise in the latter get increasingly involved in the former, it’ll be hard for them to resist the temptation to skew the internet so that it makes their own services run better.

It also raises the prospect that in future we may have an array of internet-supplying vehicles hovering in our skies – bringing a whole new meaning to “cloud computing”.

The key question will be: do you want to get your internet from Facebook’s drone or the Google balloon?

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