A woman tests a high-speed in-flight Internet service named Fli-Fi while on a
The Internet may feel like it's everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal's reach.
Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale - the
Even these figures, says
"Everyone in our community has a phone and a SIM card," he says. "But they're not covered."
Heimerl reckons up to two billion people live most of their lives without easy access to cellular coverage. "It's not getting better at the dramatic rate you think."
The challenge is to find a way to connect those people, at an attractive cost.
And then there's the frontier beyond that: the oceans.
Improving the range and speed of communications beneath the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet is a must for environmental monitoring - climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, and protecting harbours.
There is also interest from oceanographers looking to map the sea bed, marine biologists, deep-sea archaeologists and those hunting for natural resources, or even searching for lost vessels or aircraft.
And there's politics:
"Our ability to communicate in water is limited," says
As part of its Project Loon,
But these are experimental technologies, unlikely to be commercially viable for a decade, says Christian Patouraux, CEO of another Singapore start-up, Kacific. Its solution is a satellite network that aims to bring affordable internet to 40 million people in the so-called 'Blue Continent' - from eastern
A mix of technologies will prevail, says Patouraux - from fibre-optic cables, 3G and LTE mobile technologies to satellites like his HTS Ku-band, which he hopes to launch by end-2016. "No single technology will ever solve everything," he said.
Indeed, satellite technology - the main method of connectivity until submarine cables became faster and cheaper - is enjoying a comeback. While Kacific, O3b and others aim at hard-to-reach markets, satellite Internet is having success even in some developed markets. Last year,
And today's airline passengers increasingly expect to be able to go online while flying, with around 40% of US jetliners now offering some WiFi. The number of commercial planes worldwide with wireless Internet or cellphone service, or both, will triple in the next decade, says research firm IHS.
Densely populated Singapore is experimenting with so-called 'white space', using those parts of the wireless spectrum previously set aside for television signals. This year, it has quietly started offering what it calls SuperWifi to deliver wireless signals over 5km or more to beaches and tourist spots.
This is not just a first-world solution. Endaga's Heimerl is working with co-founder Shaddi Hasan to use parts of the GSM spectrum to build his village-level telco in the hills of
That means an ordinary GSM cellphone can connect without any tweaks or hardware. Users can phone anyone on the same network and send SMS messages to the outside world through a deal with a Swedish operator.
Such communities, says Heimerl, will have to come up with such solutions because major telecoms firms just aren't interested. "The problem is that these communities are small, and even with the price of hardware falling, the carriers would rather install 4G in cities than equipment in these communities."
The notion of breaking free of telecoms companies isn't just a pipe dream.
Part of the answer lies in mesh networks, where devices themselves serve as nodes connecting users - not unlike a trucker's CB radio, says
Gardner-Stephen has developed a mesh technology called Serval that has been used by activists lobbying against the demolition of slums in
Mesh networks aren't necessarily small, rural and poor:
Even without a balloon and
In any case, he says, the Internet is no longer about instantaneous communication.
As long as we know our data will arrive at some point, the possibilities open up to thinking of our devices more as data couriers, storing messages on behalf of one community until they are carried by a villager to another node they can connect to, passing those messages on several times a day.
It's not our present vision of a network where messages are transmitted in an instant, but more like a digital postal service, which might well be enough for some.
"Is the Internet going to be what it looks like today? The answer is no," said Gardner-Stephen.
As the Internet changes, so will its boundaries.
As more devices communicate with other devices -
Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn't possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we're now used to.
That's partly because there are no agreed standards, says Subnero's Nagarajan, who likens it to the early days of the Internet. Subnero offers underwater modems that look like small torpedoes which, he says, can incorporate competing standards and allow users to configure them.
This is a significant plus, says
The problem: a crackling noise that sailors have variously attributed to rolling pebbles, surf, volcanoes, and, according to a US submarine commander off
The actual culprit has since been identified - the so-called pistol shrimp, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey. Only recently has Chitre been able to filter out the shrimp's noise from the sonic pulses an underwater modem sends. His technology is now licensed to Subnero.
There are still problems speeding up transmission and filtering out noise, he says. But the world is opening up to the idea that to understand the ocean means deploying permanent sensors and modems to communicate their data to shore.
And laying submarine cables would cost too much.
"The only way to do this is if you have communications technology. You can't be wiring the whole ocean," he told Reuters. "It's got to be wireless."
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