The computer most people use comes with a standard 56K modem, which means that in an ideal situation your computer would downstream at a rate of 56 kilobits per second (Kbps). That speed is far too slow to handle the huge streaming-video and music files that more consumers are demanding today. That's where the need for bigger bandwidth -- broadband -- comes in, allowing a greater amount of data to flow to and from your computer. Land-based lines are limited physically in how much data they can deliver because of the diameter of the cable or phone line. In an airborne Internet, there is no such physical limitation, enabling a broader capacity.
Several companies have already shown that satellite Internet access can work. The airborne Internet will function much like satellite-based Internet access, but without the time delay. Bandwidth of satellite and airborne Internet access are typically the same, but it will take less time for the airborne Internet to relay data because it is not as high up. Satellites orbit at several hundreds of miles above Earth. The airborne-Internet aircraft will circle overhead at an altitude of 52,000 to 69,000 feet (15,849 to 21,031 meters). At this altitude, the aircraft will be undisturbed by inclement weather and flying well above commercial air traffic.
Networks using high-altitude aircraft will also have a cost advantage over satellites because the aircraft can be deployed easily -- they don't have to be launched into space. However, the airborne Internet will actually be used to compliment the satellite and ground-based networks, not replace them. These airborne networks will overcome the last-mile barriers facing conventional Internet access options. The "last mile" refers to the fact that access to high-speed cables still depends on physical proximity, and that for this reason, not everyone who wants access can have it. It would take a lot of time to provide universal access using cable or phone lines, just because of the time it takes to install the wires. An airborne network will immediately overcome the last mile as soon as the aircraft takes off.
The airborne Internet won't be completely wireless. There will be ground-based components to any type of airborne Internet network. The consumers will have to install an antenna on their home or business in order to receive signals from the network hub overhead. The networks will also work with established Internet Service Providers (ISPs), who will provide their high-capacity terminals for use by the network. These ISPs have a fiber point of presence -- their fiber optics are already set up. What the airborne Internet will do is provide an infrastructure that can reach areas that don't have broadband cables and wires.
In the next three sections, we will take a look at the three aircraft that could be bringing you broadband Internet access from the sky.