How to Bring Internet to the Masses OR: God Help the Pigeons

Like all good conversations, this one started out about sex.

We’re just a tiny bit nerdy, so we started wondering about the data speed during conception. Which, of course, got me to making comparisons to our local internet providers, which is a less messy form of data transfer while still providing the sensation of being screwed.

However, we still have it easy when you consider that less than one third of the world has home internet access. Google is, of course, trying to expand their market by building a fleet of satellites. Space is pretty awesome and all, but we’ve been sending stuff up there since the fifties. There has to be a more ridiculous option.

If you want really fast speeds and don’t care about ping, it turns out that snail mail is many, many times faster than your internet connection.

Still not ridiculous enough. My brain made the obvious leap to carrier pigeons. I bet nobody’s ever sent data via carrier pigeon! Oh, wait, no,  of course they have.

What’s more, the pigeons are still faster. But these tests were only over small distances, with relatively large amounts of data. Over longer distances, one would expect the internet to win out. Let’s figure it out.

I want to make this as challenging as possible for the pigeons in terms of distance. But since we have yet to breed pigeons that can fly through the vastness of space the furthest we can possibly send them is to exact opposite side of the world. That’s called your antipode, and there is a website for figuring yours out here.

I wrote this blog while sitting in my home town of Missoula, Montana. Despite being told my entire childhood that digging straight down would lead me to China, Missoula’s actual antipode  is around 66.013° E, -46.85° S, smack dab in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The nearest land is actually owned by the French and not the Chinese.

Welcome to the awesomely-named Desolation Islands. There are no indigenous inhabitants, but the French government maintains a satellite tracking center and a research station. They also launch rockets.

The beefiest carrier pigeons can carry about 70 grams on their little backs. Newegg sells some nifty 64 GB microdiscs as small as a fingernail that weigh half a gram. That would be 140 cards costing a total of $7,203. There is free shipping, but not by carrier pigeon. That’s 8,960 GB per pigeon or 8.75 TB.

Missoula to the Desolation islands is about 19,664 km. Homing pigeons at top speed can reach speeds of 93 km/hr. Now, because time and money are no obstacle when I’m pondering the data transfer speed of pigeons, I’m imagining a Pony Express relay of pigeons stretching from here to the Desolation Islands. Stations would have to be set up about every 200 km, requiring  100 pigeons each trained to go back to their home station (the extra pigeon would be so that data could come back).

Most of this direct route is in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, requiring supports drilled into the bottom of the world’s deepest oceans. Ocean-based oil rigs can cost up to 700 million USD, to give you an idea of the expenses involved here. Each station would need trained staff just waiting to transfer the data from pigeon to pigeon as they make the relay. All told, one pigeon semi-circumnavigation would take 8 days, 23 hours to deliver 8.75 TB, or 94.83 mbps. Of course this means that if you wanted to play chess with someone via pigeon mail, it would take 16 days, 21 hours to send your move and see that they took your queen–not counting however long they take to make their move.

There are no undersea cables leading that far South into the ocean, meaning that the researchers most likely rely on satellite internet. The annual FCC benchmarking report from  2013, Measuring Broadband America, lists 12 mbps as the fastest advertised rate (at least for civilian use). Some people experience up to 160% of the advertised rate, leading to about 19.2 mbps. This is still only 1/5 the speed of pigeon net.

Conclusion: God help the pigeons if I ever become an eccentric billionaire.

There are no airports on the Desolation Islands. Shipping your data by boat saves you the hassle of pigeon exchange stations every 200 km, the expense of staffing and maintaining these stations and shipping food and supplies halfway around the globe. However, it would take about the same amount of time, considering the only way to the Desolation Islands is a six day boat ride from Réunion, which requires a few airport connections from Europe and getting to Europe is already a 20-hour ordeal from Montana.

So, I don’t actually expect some internetless third worlders to go out every morning, collect a pigeon, take off the microdiscs and fire up Facebook.

But a man can dream.