A Chinese internet technology company has announced a plan to provide free satellite internet worldwide by 2026, joining companies like SpaceX, Facebook and Google in the mission to run a global internet service.
Shanghai-based company LinkSure Network, which says its mission is to bridge the world's digital inequalities, unveiled earlier this week the first satellite in their ambitious plan to ensure that everyone in the world can access the internet free of charge.
The plan - dubbed the "LinkSure Swarm Constellation System" - would see 272 satellites set at different orbits and heights in order to span the entire globe.
The first satellite, LinkSure No 1, is set to launch in north-west China in 2019 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre as part of the payload on board one of China's Long March rockets.
Ten further satellites will be sent into orbit by 2020.
The news went viral in China on social media site Weibo, thrilling many Chinese netizens.
"I feel so happy to think of going out without asking for a wi-fi password," one Weibo user wrote.
Another Weibo user joked about whether the future service would be above Chinese censorship, asking "can we use Twitter with this wi-fi connection?"
According to their company website, LinkSure already services more than 900 million users across 223 countries and regions, mainly through its application WiFi Master Key, which allows users to connect to certain Wi-Fi hotspots without the use of individual login details.
When operational, LinkSure said the swarm of satellites would provide internet access to areas that have traditionally been difficult to service.
Around 3.9 billion people are still unable to access the internet, according to a report from the United Nations in 2017.
Data from the World Economic Forum suggests that the issue is predominantly due to infrastructure limitations in remote areas and issues with individual affordability in third-world countries.
While major companies like SpaceX, Facebook and Google have all unveiled plans to provide global satellite internet service by the mid-2020s that will help provide access to untapped regions at a low cost, LinkSure's commitment to providing a free service on this scale also nullifies the issue of affordability.
"There are still many places in the world still uncovered by the internet," LinkSure Network chief executive Wang Jingying said at the satellite plan's unveiling.
"The Earth has many different terrains like ocean or desert, where internet infrastructure cannot be constructed, so we got the idea of developing such satellites."
She said the company would invest at least 3 billion yuan ($NZ630 million) in the plan, and despite providing access to the public for free, that the company is confident the project can pay itself off through new partnerships and applications.
Ms Wang's view was echoed by Huang Zhicheng, an aerospace technology expert.
"Aerospace programmes have high risks and need big investment," Mr Huang told Chinese state media broadcaster CCTV.
"Programmes that you can see return in three to five years are very few. So patience is very important."
LinkSure's plan combines China's growing interest and expansion in satellite technology, including the announcement last month of a plan to launch satellites to act as "artificial moons" that could replace city streetlights by 2020.
Beijing has also made moves to increase global digital connectivity, looking to create a "Digital Silk Road" as part of its controversial One Belt One Road Initiative.
The Digital Silk Road plan is designed to help Beijing export "a digital economic infrastructure that will allow China's technological prowess to go global."
But China's digital ambitions have raised concerns, and earlier this year Canberra opted to sign its own deal to provide undersea internet cable to the Solomon Islands, preventing Chinese mobile telecommunications giant Huawei carrying out a similar project.
In New Zealand, telco Spark's plan to use Huawei equipment in the rollout of the 5G network sparked national security concerns, resulting in the Government Communications Security Bureau turning down the proposal.
However, Huawei deputy managing director Andrew Bowater said the company had no idea what the risks were and the decision could impact on the company's reputation.
- ABC / RNZ