“My ISP is a Solar-Powered Drone.”

Google, the ad-driven search giant, and Facebook, the social connections giant, are fighting over airplane drone technology companies. What’s that all about?

Solar-powered drones would, when they’re ready for mass-market in the next five years, be able to fly for weeks or months. They can take 2D and 3D photos resulting in better and more up-to-date maps. And they could serve as aerial Internet connections. It’s the latter that got my attention because it threatens the status quo in developed nations and opens new markets in developing nations.

Aerial Internet Drones (AIDs) suggest a breakout technology that solves — or at least remediates — the “wireless everywhere” mantra of the past decade. In developed countries such as the United States, intractable wireless problems include inadequate wireless bandwidth in high device areas (e.g., mid-town New York) necessitating more cell towers and greater slices of the electromagnetic spectrum. Moreover, “poor wireless coverage meets not-in-my-neighborhood” and inadequate capital make it politically and economically difficult to add enough cell towers to guarantee wireless broadband such as LTE to build a superior wireless broadband network in suburban and rural areas.

In underdeveloped geographies, which represent attractive new markets for the global technology and wireless companies, inexpensive and inadequate mobile broadband infrastructure creates a chicken-and-the-egg problem.

So, the vision to solve both developing and developed wireless broadband demand is to put up a global network of drones that serve as radio relays for wireless Internet connections. AIDs would be a new form of Internet router, loitering around a more-or-less fixed point in the sky.

At the right altitude, an AID has better line-of-sight than a cell tower located over the hill. The AID theoretically offers greater geographic coverage and often better signal quality than today’s cell tower networks. At a cost of less than $10 million per equipped AID, my envelope calculations suggest AID network costs compare favorably with cell towers for comparable geographic coverage.

In developing areas such as Africa, an AID network is a solution to creating metro- and rural-area Internet wireless infrastructure rapidly and without the difficulties of building land-line-connected cell towers.

Cellphone networks connect cell towers with land line connections to each other and to an Internet wired backhaul. An AID network needs to connect wirelessly to a) client cellphones and the Internet of Things and b) to a radio ground-station connected to an Internet wired backhaul. The radio ground-station is the crux of the difficulties I foresee.

The ground-station requires radio spectrum to communicate up to and down from the AID network. It represents a new demand on the over-burdened and highly political use of the electromagnetic spectrum. Where does the spectrum come from, whose ox is gored, and how are the skids greased?  Think lobbying.

Moreover, the incumbent cable and wireless ISPs (i.e., Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Dish, et al) are not likely to give up their near monopolies on Internet access by devices, homes, and businesses without a knockdown, drag-out political fight followed by years of litigation.

Add citizen privacy related to drone picture taking to this highly volatile Internet-industrial-complex wireless food fight and you can expect great spectator sport. Although in developing countries, the issue will be described as “drone spying by the NSA”.

Like many, I would greatly appreciate and even pay more for better wireless coverage and higher wireless device bandwidth. First, Google and Facebook have to solve the real technology problems of getting the AIDs into the sky. Second, they have to muscle a (much needed) rethink of wireless spectrum use and the roles of future ISPs through the political sausage factory, and nail down the new spectrum they need. Combined, this is a heavy lift.

So, with a sigh of regret, I suspect it will be quite a while before I can say “My ISP is a Solar-Powered Drone.”

Follow me on Twitter @PeterSKastner.

solar drone

Titan Aerospace/Associated Press

Facebook Groups: 2010 Worst User Interface Award

Facebook Groups.

When you create Facebook Groups of friends, a subset of all your FB friends, you must enter the names one-by-one. No hints from your entire list of friends.  No way to simultaneously run down a list of friends while filling in the Group form.  You just have to do it from memory. And at my age with 200+ friends, that’s next to impossible.

Well, not impossible but very tedious.  My most productive method last night was to open six Facebook windows, one with my friends list on it and five others for the five groups that I have created. When I cam across a friend’s name that should be in one of the five groups, I would click over to that window and add the friend to the list. Wasn’t that fun? Good thing I had a nice single malt to sip.

I’ve also noted a couple of other eyebrow-raising things on Facebook.  First, real friends in my private groups can add their friends to the group. I suppose their friends’ friends can also join. Yes, as administrator I can remove these non-friends. Second, Facebook posts now appear in your email box with a valid reply address. One friend replied by email to a post I made before realizing that the off-subject reply was actually a post in the public forum.  Third, uploading photos to Groups is tedious because none of the Facebook and third-party photo uploaders work with Groups. That means you have to select photos by file name from your hard drive and upload it. Another UI disaster.

Once the Group is created, there may be a social pig in that poke. But it will take a mountain of effort for most users to get there. And, since Metcalf’s Law says the bigger the group, the more impact it has, it will be very hard for users to put together larger groups in a timely and efficient way.

Hence, the well-deserved award. Nothing more to say.  Try Facebook Groups and I invite your comments.