By Prarthana Mitra
Facebook is building a new internet satellite to bring broadband connectivity to “unserved and underserved areas“.
Exchanges between the Federal Communications Commission and Facebook representatives over the last couple of years, uncovered by WIRED, refer to a “small satellite experimental application” for the satellite, which was confirmed by spokespersons of the company this week.
The social network wants to launch Athena, its very own internet satellite, in early 2019, according to the email correspondences. “We believe satellite technology will be an important enabler of the next generation of broadband infrastructure,” read one of Facebook’s emails dating back to July 2016.
Replacing fiber with satellites: The pros and cons
Geostationary satellites are replacing fiber optic cables in a lot of places that are trying to enter the cloud, and this is not the first time Facebook is dabbling in satellite technology either. Connecting remote parts of the world and bringing the entire globe online has been their self-proclaimed mission for a while. The Zuckerberg-led company has had a long history of investing in bringing internet connectivity to places where people don’t have access to broadband connections.
Billions of people around the world still lack access to an affordable, quality internet connection, and Facebook’s mission to provide the same has not been without controversy so far. The Free Basics programme was outlawed by India, and vehemently criticised for trying to create a two-tiered internet, digital divide between developed and developing nations.
In the same year, Facebook took active interest and initiative to launch an internet-beaming satellite for remote African villages, but lost it when SpaceX’s rocket exploded during a test. The company also tested an internet-beaming drone called Aquila, a project that was killed last month.
Athena represents a single research project as opposed to the constellation of satellites that many believe Facebook is trying to build. Developing broadband internet for an area using lower-orbit satellites will be quite challenging because they need a large network in order to be effective. This could prove to be counterproductive when trying to make net connectivity affordable and cost-competitive with cable and fiber distribution.
After #SpaceX, #Facebook to build an internet satellite. Facebook has confirmed it is working on a new satellite project, named #athena , that will provide broadband internet connections to rural and underserved areas. pic.twitter.com/wxUpx5ugg7
— Connect Socialy (@CSocialy) July 21, 2018
Thus, Facebook has to surmount the challenge of convincing people they want to reach, to pay for the internet service it’s working to provide.
What we know about Athena so far
The latest emails contain minutes of meetings between FCC officials, Facebook’s lawyers and other government agencies, including a 2016 application for an experimental license to construct and operate a “small LEO [low Earth orbit] satellite system with a limited duration mission.” According to exchanges in April, the same lawyer seeks a meeting to discuss his client’s “small satellite experimental application” variably referred to as PointView Tech LLC or FCL Tech.
On Friday, Facebook confirmed WIRED’s speculations in a statement, saying, “While we have nothing to share about specific projects at this time, we believe satellite technology will be an important enabler of the next generation of broadband infrastructure, making it possible to bring broadband connectivity to rural regions where internet connectivity is lacking or non-existent.”
With Athena, Facebook joins the likes of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Softbank-backed OneWeb, with the former having launched its first Starlink satellite this February. According to WIRED, satellite technology alone cannot foster digital literacy or get more people online, but it is an essential means to make headway and dismantle the digital divide.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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