Google, Facebook, SpaceX battle to connect remote workers

Woman on wireless laptop working on remote highway in the desert

Business is getting Biblical. A plague precedes an exodus.

The coronavirus crisis, with its sheltering in place, social distancing and remote work is motivating urban workers to move to more rural areas.

Some people are "panic moving" -- getting out as soon as possible. Still more are planning a move for after the pandemic is under control.

Some are moving to the suburbs. Others are moving to the countryside. Still others are going off-grid or moving abroad.

Real estate site Redfin revealed a huge spike in real estate searches for homes and land in Montana, with the majority of those queries originating in California. One report estimates that more than two million people will move out of New York City, with a quarter million moving upstate and two million moving out of state.

City slickers in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere are flocking to rural areas of Colorado, Oregon, Maine and Vermont.

Once foreign countries allow incoming travel, I believe urban Americans will seek out remote areas abroad to resettle.

Nothing new?

Flight from cities is being accelerated by the pandemic. But it was a trend already in progress when the coronavirus emerged. In fact, remote work was already growing steadily for years. And cities were becoming less desirable. An MIT study published this month found that cities have stopped being the "escalators of opportunity" that they used to be for mid-level employees.

The great migration is probably the biggest cultural shift that will result from the pandemic. And this isn't some interesting-but-irrelevant sociological fact. These are the people who work at your company. This will affect you directly, even if you don't join the exodus.

Obviously, this change is made possible by remote work, and new remote working tools, as well as new cultural habits like video conferencing instead of meetings and conferences.

There's just one problem. How's the internet out there in the boonies?

The trouble with remote work

The last mile of our internet has always come from resources firmly bolted to the surface of our planet. Fiber-optic cables and cellular towers make economic sense only in crowded areas. Digging a trench for fiber or erecting and maintaining a cellular base station makes sense if thousands of people will be served by it. It doesn't make sense if only dozens benefit, as would be the case in remote or rural areas. And so rural broadband is notoriously terrible.

And so, we find ourselves in a situation where millions of people are moving out of areas with fast internet and into areas with slow or non-existent internet, just as everyone's need for higher speeds and capacities is increasing (because of remote work and the primacy of video calls).

At scale and over the long term, what's the impact on your organization from a dramatic lowering of average employee internet bandwidth?

Here comes sky-high Wi-Fi!

We've been talking about sky-based internet connectivity -- satellites, drones and balloons -- for decades. But this year, some of this is getting very real.

Years ago, Silicon Valley giants Google and Facebook each proposed alternative ways to deliver internet to remote areas by mesh-networking via a chain of flying objects. Google proposed balloons. Facebook proposed drones.

Facebook's drone program crashed and burned two years ago. But Google's -- now parent company Alphabet's -- Loon program launched commercially this week.

After many trials (and also temporary deployment in the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and an earthquake in Peru) Alphabet launched this week its Loon balloon-based internet service in Kenya, which uses 35 balloons to blanket a 50,000 square kilometer area with 4G LTE service, including the capital city of Nairobi.

Loon provides connectivity mainly for mobile phones, which is the main "personal computer" for most Kenyans.

While balloon-based internet is now soaring, drone-based internet still could have a future. SoftBank and others are investing in drone internet. To a large extent, the form of aviation is less crucial than the software and electronics that zap the internet connectivity from one airborne craft to another.

Even more promising for global coverage is SpaceX's Starlink program, which involves thousands of 570-pound satellites, each the size of a desk and orbiting 340 miles above the Earth. (SpaceX is currently authorized to launch 12,000 satellites, but they want to launch a total of 42,000.)

Large ground stations would pump data to and from the satellites. Individual subscribers would use a device CEO Elon Musk has described as a UFO on a stick, the disk for which would be about the size of a medium pizza. They would automatically point to the optimal satellites.

SpaceX claims that Starlink will offer one-gigabit-per-second speeds with latency ranging from 25 to 35 milliseconds.

The Starlink newsletter is already calling for volunteers to sign up for their upcoming beta program. Starlink is expected to go online for subscribers in the United States and Canada later this year.

A new alternative to SpaceX's Starlink is a struggling company called OneWeb, which launched as WorldVu in 2012 and collapsed in March after Softbank decided to stop funding it. The company has74 satellites in orbit, and aspires to launch as many as Starlink intends to launch..

Amazon wants to launch 3,000 satellites for its Project Kuiper. And TeleSate intends to launch 1,000 satellites.

Competition is nice. But they'll all have a hard time competing with SpaceX in the near term, which is way ahead and also building out its network at a far faster pace.

Other companies are getting into the act. Google job posts suggest that Google will be getting into the satellite broadband service market. The company is already hiring people to launch a "global satellite-based broadband service."

Because Google doesn't have much of a space program, it's possible that the company may try to go MVNO, as they do with Google Fi. The popular Google Fi service isn't a carrier. It's a service that uses other carriers in many countries around the world. They could do something similar with satellite broadband -- or bundled satellite service as part of Google Fi.

A more likely scenario is for Google to partner with SpaceX. It's interesting to note that Google was a leading, $1 billion investor in SpaceX.

Until now, balloon and drone-based internet was non-existent and satellite internet connectivity very expensive and slow.

But just as the coronavirus is driving millions of urban workers to remote areas, we could be on the brink of a new era in connectivity -- one where just about anyone just about anywhere can get fast, affordable internet connectivity.

And if that happens, it will serve as yet another incentive for people to abandon the cities where corporate headquarters are located and move into rural areas.

In other words, the advent of both pandemics and sky-based broadband will send remote work requests into the stratosphere.