Facebook is expanding its plan to beam internet to remote areas of the Earth, using a solar-powered drone flying high above the ground. The social networking giant has been working on the internet connectivity project since 2013, and a new partnership with French satellite operator Eutelsat Communications aims to get more people in Africa online by using satellites to beam internet specifically to areas where connectivity is currently impossible due to the gaps between mobile networks.
The system, which will launch in the second half of 2016, will provide Internet access to entire communities in 14 countries across West, East and Southern Africa with Eutelsat’s AMOS-6 geostationary satellite. In order to get the job done, Facebook and Eutelsat will share the capacity and employ cost-effective equipment to build a network of satellites, Internet gateways, and terminals. This is all part of Facebook’s Internet.org project, which aims to provide free basic Internet services to areas of the world where access would otherwise be unaffordable or unavailable. And that’s more areas than you might realize.
Currently, according to the Pew Research Center, most people getting online in Africa and other so-called emerging markets are using their mobile phones to do so. Around two-thirds or more of people polled in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda own a cell phone, and the figures are even higher in South Africa and Nigeria, where around nine out of every 10 people have a mobile phone.
The project has met with some criticism, as skeptics say the Facebook-backed Internet access will favor the company’s own content and thus violate net neutrality. Facebook officials and execs at Internet.org have defended the efforts on numerous occasions, claiming the goal is to offer Internet access to the two-thirds of the world’s population who do not currently have a way to get online. This is also true for this new African project. “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,” Chris Daniels, VP of Internet.org, said in a statement. “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.”