Facebook is working to develop its own internet satellite to help provide service to remote parts of the world, according to a report from Wired, based on documents they requested through the Freedom of Information Act. A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) application, filed by a company called PointView Tech LLC, describes a satellite called Athena, which would launch in 2019 to “efficiently provide broadband access to unserved and underserved areas throughout the world.”
Emails that Wired also obtained from the FCC indicate that PointView is a subsidiary of Facebook.
In a statement to the magazine, the company ultimately confirmed the plans for the Athena satellite, with a spokesperson saying:
“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.”
Last month, Facebook said it would cancel its program to develop of autonomous, solar-powered internet drones meant to connect remote areas and developing nations, according to The Verge.
Most of the world’s internet connections use fiber optic cables. But for parts of the world that are remote, or with terrain that presents obstacles to laying the cables, large, geostationary satellites are used instead. But the long distance to reach these high-orbit satellites can result in slow, high-latency connections. Now, many companies are working on smaller, low Earth orbit satellites instead. But being closer to the surface also means a smaller area of coverage, requiring more satellites to provide service to the same areas.
Satellites like these would orbit between 100 and 1,250 miles above Earth’s surface.
SpaceX is also working on a similar project, which it calls Starlink, and launched a prototype satellite earlier this year. It is working toward a total of 7,518 satellites, “enabling the provision of high speed, high bandwidth, low latency broadband services that are truly competitive with terrestrial alternatives,” according to their FCC application.
Facebook launched Internet.org in 2013, a broad-scoped project to connect underserved communities to the internet. Free Basics, which provides free access to certain websites such as Facebook, is part of that initiative. The project’s Connectivity Lab researches internet access projects such as satellites.
A satellite from the Connectivity Lab was set to launch in 2016 on a SpaceX rocket that exploded during a routine test.