Facebook’s Internet Drone Team Is Collaborating with Google’s Stratospheric Balloons Project

Facebook and Google compete intensely for your time online and for the ad dollars of corporations. But now the two companies are collaborating on efforts to use balloons and drone aircraft to expand Internet access to the four billion people that don’t have it.

Documents filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission show that both companies are pushing for international law to be modified to make it easier to use aircraft around 20 kilometers above the earth, in the stratosphere, to provide Internet access.

At the Solve conference at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Monday, representatives of the competing projects said they are now working together, although they wouldn’t say exactly how.

Facebook and Google’s projects overlap in many ways, not just their end goals. For example, both companies are working on using lasers to transfer data rapidly, whether between stratospheric balloons, in the case of Google, or between drones and from drones to the ground, in the case of Facebook. Google also has a project of its own investigating drones for Internet access, although it, like Facebook’s project, is at a much earlier stage than the balloon effort.

The two companies also face the same policy challenges. Using stratospheric drones or balloons at large scale will require changes to rules governing the use of airspace and wireless communications.

Google and Facebook’s projects so far appear to be focused on working with existing telecommunications companies, not governments. Google plans to lease access to its balloons to existing wireless carriers, and is already running trials with several in the Southern Hemisphere. Facebook’s drone system is not yet ready for full-scale tests, but it has said it plans to release details of some of its technology for free.

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