Facebook and Eutelsat Communications on Monday announced a partnership to leverage satellite technology to provide Internet access to remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
The initiative, which includes a multiyear agreement with Spacecom, will utilize the entire broadband payload on the future AMOS-6 satellite as the backbone of a dedicated system that will include satellite capacity, gateways, and terminals.
Facebook and Eutelsat will provide online access to African regions where there is little to no connectivity. The companies highlighted the potential for economic and social benefits that the project could bring.
The initiative is the latest effort of Internet.org, which Facebook launched two years ago to address the physical, economic, and social barriers that keep many people in the developing world from getting online.
“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,” said Chris Daniels, vice president of Internet.org.
“Eutelsat has already validated satellite as a fast, effective, and efficient way to get users online in many markets, “Eutelsat CEO Michel de Rosen said.
“For Africa, we believe satellite will play its role as a long-term solution for affordable and quality Internet,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The agreement with Facebook is for us a great opportunity to accelerate access into Africa’s Internet market.”
The service, scheduled to begin in the second half of 2016, will utilize the Ka-band, which can provide greater capacity and direct-to-user Internet access via affordable, off-the-shelf equipment, the companies said.
The system will work via dedicated Internet gateways in Europe and Israel and will send a signal to dish antennas in Africa. Eutelsat has provided a similar service to remote regions over the Ku-band, but that requires a larger antenna for pickup than the 75-centimeter antennas that Ka-band terminals will use.
“Eutelsat is a satellite provider of Internet access, so the potential infrastructure issues are presumably removed as barriers,” said Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insight at the Local Search Association.
Issues such as how the satellite performs in bad weather or when there’s another atmospheric disturbance still may need to be resolved, he told TechNewsWorld
Facebook’s Connected World
The effort will provide service where there is none, and Facebook deserves some credit for that.
“Access to connectivity will bring benefits to the users. Even if it is only through Facebook, messages and posts enable people to share the news and what’s important to them,” said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research.
“If users don’t see a benefit, they won’t use the service. If the investment ultimately leads to additional advertising revenue, it’ll be a win for the population — and Facebook,” he told Tech NewsWorld.
Details of the service haven’t been provided, but “it is important that the governments involved require open access,” Crandall said.
“What exactly is included in ‘free Internet’?” he asked. “Is it everything from Wikipedia and Google to Facebook, or only Facebook and Instagram?”
While the project aims to bring cost-effective broadband access to unconnected populations, Facebook also might be motivated by advertising dollars — the more eyeballs, the more its ads are worth.
“There isn’t an immediate ad play, but longer term, there will be revenues associated with the move, if successful,” the Local Search Association’s Sterling said.
The New Imperialists?
Facebook could be seen as the next-generation player for connecting the world online.
“In a number of developing countries, Facebook is synonymous with the Internet much in the same way that AOL was in the U.S. early on,” said Sterling.
The goal may be to connect as many people as possible as the economies of developing countries are on the increase, said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.
That market may not be the most lucrative, “but as their incomes rise over time and they stay loyal to Facebook as the company that enabled them to access the Internet first, revenues will come down the line,” he told TechNewsWorld. “This is really a long play for Facebook betting on global living standards to rise.”
However, Facebook’s efforts to forge brand loyalty and user habits that are aligned with its long-term brand and revenue goals could result in a mix of altruistic and self-interested motivations.
“Recall that Google was trying to do something similar with Project Loon,” noted Sterling. “One could argue this might be the digital equivalent of European colonial expansion into Africa in the 19th Century. But make no mistake, Africans also will benefit if they can get reliable and affordable Internet access.”