At the end of this year, Facebook will launch a satellite into orbit to provide free access to the Internet to the African continent. Yes, really. But what is a social networking service doing mucking around with satellites?
To be completely accurate, Facebook has partnered with a Paris-based firm called Eutelsat (which was planning to launch the satellite anyway) rather than following through on rumoured plans to build its own.
And it’s not Facebook per se that will be offering the service, but Internet.org, a non-profit organisation to which Facebook is the largest contributor. But the net result is the same: from the middle of 2016, a Facebook-backed organisation will be offering free Internet access across broad swathes of Africa (including South Africa).
Internet.org is the pet project of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s relentlessly optimistic and ambitious founder. In 2013, he published a whitepaper that argued for Internet connectivity as a human right, and outlined bold plans to “connect” the 5bn people who lack Internet access.
Another Internet.org project that it being tested is enabling connectivity via extremely efficient unmanned drones, capable of staying aloft for months at a time. These drones will communicate with each other, and with base stations, using lasers. Yes, lasers!
While there’s definitely a good deal of altruism behind Internet.org, there’s also some good business sense. Facebook already has 1,5bn active users. If it continues to grow at even half its current pace, it will literally run out of new customers within a decade.
Facebook has proved exceptionally good at convincing people to use its services. If it spends a few billion dollars to bring another billion people online in the next decade, it’s fairly certain that a lot of them will become customers.
This isn’t a particularly new idea. Google, which is also running out of new customers, has been working on similar projects since 2008. Its first foray into the field, Project Loon, will use weather balloons to offer Internet connectivity to isolated communities.
Last year, Google bought Titan Aerospace, a company specialising in solar-powered drones, to do the same thing. So what looks like a whacky science project for a bored billionaire is really an arms race to find the next billion customers.
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