Skynet is coming one step closer to reality courtesy of Facebook, which is moving ahead with plans to launch a satellite to bring Internet access to underserved regions of the globe. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed the long-rumored project, part of its larger “Internet.org” initiative, in a blog post on the social network.
Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook is “partnering with Eutelsat to launch a satellite into orbit that will connect millions of people.” Eutelsat is a French-based international satellite communications company, which launches and operates satellites for clients including media companies and telecoms.
Eutelsat already operates a network of 39 geostationary satellites and is working with another satellite communications company, Spacecom, to launch an additional satellite as part of its partnership with Facebook. The satellite will likely be carried into geostationary orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket owned by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s commercial space launch firm.
The future AMOS-6 satellite, which is expected to cost around $300 million, will be used by Facebook to beam broadband Internet access to sub-Saharan Africa beginning in the fourth quarter of 2016. Zuckerberg said Facebook will also work with local partners across the region to get people access to the Internet on the ground -- mostly via mobile devices.
In July Facebook launched a program to bring more mobile operators on board with the Internet.org initiative, with the promise of providing free access to certain online services for their customers. And in June it launched a new version of its Android app called “Facebook Lite,” which uses much less data by paring down the social network to its essential functions. That should make it much more accessible for people with older devices, limited mobile data plans, or who live in areas with patchy coverage, including parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Sub-Saharan Africa currently has a population of around 900 million, but currently less than a fifth have access to the Internet, with availability concentrated in urban areas. Access also varies widely by country: for example, in 2014 nearly half of Kenyans (47.3%) had access to the Internet, but in countries like Sierra Leone and Niger the figure was just 1.7%, according to Internet World Stats.
Facebook has been experimenting with a number of other ways of delivering Internet access from the skies. In May 2014 the company bought Ascenta, a British maker of high altitude, unmanned, solar-powered drones capable of beaming Internet access to more built-up areas.