Facebook and the clash between Internet access & Internet freedom
A few days ago Mark Zuckerberg announced that “Aquila” (Eagle), the drone he has been working on for more than a year, has successfully completed its maiden flight, staying aloft for 92 minutes, about three times the time programmed by the test designers. This is a first success in the Facebook project to bring Internet access in rural areas of the planet through a fleet of drones that radiate the signal to ground.
The idea of the social network from Palo Alto is to use the technology of UAVs to bring the Internet to people in hard to reach areas (mountains, remote regions etc.) through movable flying “radio links“. The drone used for the test has a wingspan of 40 meters, weighs 400 kg and is powered by solar panels installed on the wings: the goal is to make “Aquila” fly non-stop for three months, accumulating daytime the solar energy it takes to fly even at night. Each “drones squadron” will consist of a lead drone who receives the Internet signal from the ground and retransmits it to others drones. Each drone can cover an area of 50 kilometers in diameter and provide “tens of gigabits per second”.
The Facebook initiative is not the first project geared up to bring the Internet connection by flying objects: Google is experimenting for some time an alternative solution based on geostationary balloon satellites. The two companies, which normally operate in competition, decided to join their forces to ask the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to provide permission to experience their systems. So there are still many obstacles to be overcome in order to give effect to these projects.
The Facebook and Google initiatives are in fact also the subject of some criticism for their lack of transparency: although Zuckerberg has repeatedly declared its intention to bring the Internet throughout the world “for a good cause”, many people believe that Facebook is just trying to expand its customer base. (“The more connections there are in the world, more customers will use the social network“). It is not the first time that Facebook has been criticized about his plans to bring connectivity to the poorest countries: recently “Free basics” – the Palo Alto project that offers some basic Internet services via mobile connection – has been blocked in India for violation of the principles of net neutrality. The concern is that projects by major tech firms to expand Internet access, although right in principle, end up favoring only their services (social networks, instant messenger apps etc.). The debate, therefore, is no longer only about the Internet access but once again about Internet freedom: does giving people limited free access to the Internet outweigh that concern we told about before, when the alternative is no Internet access at all?