In its latest effort to open up Internet access to developing markets, Facebook has partnered with French satellite company Eutelsat Communications.
The ensuing initiative, which spans a number of years, is scheduled for launch in the latter half of 2016, and will “leverage satellite technologies to get more Africans online,” according to a press release. It will use the upcoming AMOS-6 satellite, a $200 million, 5-ton satellite built by Israel Aerospace Industries. Facebook and Eutelsat say they will create a system specifically aimed at bringing connectivity to large swaths of Sub-Saharan Africa, and that the system will be “optimised for community and Direct-to-User Internet access using affordable, off-the-shelf customer equipment.”
For this latest project, Eutelsat is setting up a new company, based in London, to oversee the African satellite broadband rollout. Facebook says it will work with “local partners” across Africa to help deliver services, using both satellite and terrestrial capacity.
“Facebook’s mission is to connect the world and we believe that satellites will play an important role in addressing the significant barriers that exist in connecting the people of Africa,” said Chris Daniels, VP of Facebook’s Internet.org program. “We are looking forward to partnering with Eutelsat on this project and investigating new ways to use satellites to connect people in the most remote areas of the world more efficiently.”
Founded in 1977, Paris-based Eutelsat provides satellite capacity for many parts of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas, and is used by thousands of TV, radio, and cable networks, powered by Eutelsat’s access to 39 satellites that orbit the Earth.
Although it now claims a whopping 1.5 billion monthly active users, Facebook has been looking to emerging markets to sustain its growth — markets that have hitherto been stymied by limited Internet access. Back in 2013, Facebook launched Internet.org, a collaborative project to help “connect the next five billion.” It went to market with some notable mobile-focused companies onboard, including Samsung, Microsoft, and Qualcomm. A number of projects have emerged since then, including an India launch back in February that promised to bring Internet access to millions of new users.
However, Internet.org has faced increasing criticism for only permitting users access to select websites free of charge, including Facebook and a curated selection of local websites. The core complaint has centered around the question of net neutrality, and whether Facebook can dictate what content is accessible through its free app and mobile website. But a couple of weeks back, Facebook renamed the Internet.org apps and website as “Free Basics by Facebook,” and opened up to more developers and web services.
The broader Internet.org concept remains, however, and this will continue to provide a platform for new projects such as Aquila, a massive drone designed to deliver Internet access to developing countries. Aquila is a solar-powered aircraft that creates a 50-kilometer communications radius for up to 90 days. It’s similar to Google’s own experimental Project Loon, which promises Internet delivery by hot air balloons.
It looks like the battle of the tech giants to bring Internet access — and their own associated services — to the next few billion people is starting to heat up.