Plans to use drones and balloons to provide wireless Internet will need considerable help from regulators overseeing airspace and communications satellites. High above the annoyances of weather and commercial air traffic, the stratosphere could be a great place from which to beam down Internet connectivity to places with poor communications infrastructure. Alphabet and Facebook are both working on drones to operate 18 kilometers or more
above Earth.

Traditionally, the stratosphere’s traffic has been light, consisting of military aircraft, weather balloons, and space launches. Although each country’s national airspace extends to the edge of space, generally understood as 100
kilometers up.

“commercial regulators have mostly ignored the stratosphere”, says Cassandra Steer, a researcher at the Center for Research on Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal.

To work at large scale, Alphabet and Facebook’s schemes will need significant changes to national and international rules. “This is all somewhat uncharted territory,” says Yael Maguire, engineering director at Facebook’s connectivity lab, “there are ingredients required beyond the technology for this to work.”

For one thing, Alphabet and Facebook will need the United Nations body that regulates communications satellites, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), to get on board. It governs the radio channels used to transmit from different orbits, and it isn’t currently friendly to the idea of communications platforms in the stratosphere.

For me this is the real science fiction of our time. I look at these incredibly delicate constructions and I wonder what tow plane can go slow enough and high enough to put them into orbit 15 or 20 miles above us. How?

These are extraordinarily bold ideas. Compelling stories of businesses that will do well by doing good. Companies that can change lives and history at the same time as they plump their bottom line. And – and this is perhaps the most amazing part – governments that are actually trying to decide if they should stop progress.



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