Facebook to launch internet satellite Athena
satellite internet

Facebook to launch internet satellite Athena

According to emails obtained from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Facebook is working on a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite that will provide internet coverage.

Many city dwellers have access to superfast broadband, giving them the connectivity they need to do business, stream video, and most importantly to Facebook, engage in social networking.

However, those in rural areas or developing countries are often left behind with internet speeds that make browsing an exercise in frustration as much as it is a chance to learn, share, and relax.

Several pioneering tech companies are working to bring internet access to the half of the world’s population that currently go without – including, it now appears, Facebook.

Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Wired, emails obtained from the FCC – later corroborated by Facebook – reveal that the social media giant is planning to launch its own internet satellite, named Athena, in early 2019.

The wisdom of Athena

A subsequent application to the FCC for, “experimental authority to launch and operate a low Earth orbit, non-geostationary orbit satellite and communicate with certain Earth stations,” submitted under the name PointView Tech LLC, states that the satellite is designed to, “efficiently provide broadband access to unserved and underserved areas throughout the world”.

When contacted by Wired to confirm the Athena satellite, Facebook responded:

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.

The application states that the test satellite will have an expected lifespan of two years and will operate in a non-geostationary low Earth orbit of around 500-550km and will be approximately 0.33 cubic meters in size. It is designed to explore the suitability of such satellites in bring internet connectivity to those areas that are either unserved, or underserved.

Internet of business says

Satellite broadband companies have offered an alternative to wired connections for years now in some countries, but prices and speeds have often made the technology a poor substitute for other connections, and in much of the developing world the technology is either unavailable or unaffordable.

A host of organisations are working to bridge the digital divide by looking to the skies, not least those that stand to benefit from more connected customers. For example, Google’s holding company Alphabet, has just spun out its Loon project, which uses balloons to provide internet access. Its first active installation will be in Kenya.

Elsewhere, Aerospace giant Airbus has unveiled a solar-powered solution for stratospheric, satellite-like services – a solution that Facebook has said it will support, having pulled out of developing a similar programme.

Others are planning to build satellite constellations that they hope will blanket areas in urgent need of connectivity. SpaceX may become the first US organisation to provide commercial satellite broadband services.

Sky and Space Global has successfully launched three nano-satellites that it hopes will revolutionise the communications sector and help power the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT).

OneWeb, meanwhile, ambitiously plans to “fully bridge the digital divide by 2027, making internet access available and affordable for everyone,” and has raised nearly $2 billion in equity so far.

The cost of developing, launching, and maintaining a constellation of satellites that numbers in the hundreds, or even thousands, is huge, so the challenge for those that want to succeed in this space is being able to offer affordable satellite internet that still turns a profit – or at least makes it a worthwhile proposition alongside other business ventures.

In the case of Facebook and Google, who wish to grow their huge user bases even further, satellite internet could play an important part in tapping into new markets.

• Ironically, in countries such as the UK – where broadband speeds are among the slowest in the developed world – this could leave city centre customers who aren’t served by fibre connections with some of the slowest internet connections on the planet. For more on that, see our report from earlier this week.