With a majority of the world still without access to the Internet (roughly 60 percent as of 2014), private companies are announcing ambitious plans to close the gap. Google is exploring the use of high-altitude balloons, Facebook is eyeing autonomous drones, and now Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic are pursuing micro-satellite clusters.  

Earlier this week, the 64-year-old billionaire announced a partnership with satellite-system designers OneWeb to use Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne rocket to create a massive "satellite constellation" in space. The project would deploy a fleet of 648 micro-satellites capable of providing "low-latency, high-speed Internet access" directly to small user-based terminals all around the world. In addition to providing access via current standards (WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G connections), the OneWeb network would also give much-needed global emergency and first responder access for natural disasters, refugee camps and other humanitarian needs. 

"Imagine the possibilities for the three billion people in hard to reach areas who are currently not connected," Branson said in a statement. "We're excited for the opportunity for Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne programme to help make it possible through low cost, reliable and frequent satellite launches."

The LauncherOne rocket, while still in the design and testing phase, hopes to eventually deliver payloads from 250 pounds to 500 pounds into space for less than $10 million per flight. Satellite launches are expected to begin in 2017. 

According to SpaceNews, OneWeb will overcome the engineering challenge of interference from broadcast satellites already in space with a technique called "progressive pitch," which slightly turns the micro-satellites to avoid interference. The cluster, which would be the world's largest satellite network, will then talk to receivers on the ground measuring a tiny 36 centimeters by 16 centimeters and capable of delivering 50 megabits per second Internet access. As a comparison, the average global broadband speed currently is only 21.9 Mbps. OneWeb is expected to cost between $1.5 billion to $2 billion, a relative bargain compared to what it hopes to achieve. 

"The opportunity to improve access to education, health care, financial systems, and employment will take a revolution, one that we are tremendously proud to be part of," said Branson. "Providing affordable high-speed Internet access for the world’s unconnected populations is a huge challenge, but one we can’t wait to achieve."

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Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

How the world's largest satellite network will deliver global Internet access
Richard Branson announces plan to launch a massive 'satellite constellation' and deliver high-speed Internet access to billions.