Facebook's quest for universal Internet access: next stop, Sub-Saharan Africa

The social media giant has teamed up with French satellite company Eutelsat to connect people in remote regions of 14 countries in Africa. 

Joe Penney/Reuters
A shipping vessel arrives in Freetown as men sit by the side of the road in Sierra Leone November 21, 2012. With its galloping growth rate of an estimated 21 percent this year, driven by new iron ore projects and recent oil discoveries, Sierra Leone is being grouped by economists with the bounding 'African lions' – countries from the continent that are leading the pack of the fastest growing in the world. But Sierra Leone's business prospects may look considerably sleeker from a Johannesburg office or boutique hotel than from the pot-holed streets of Freetown, where things like available cash, power, transport and the Internet are services only obtained with difficulty, by those who can afford to get them.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been vying for more Facebook users in even the most remote corners of the Earth through the company's Internet.org initiative, which aims to make “the Internet available to every person on earth.”  

Today it is one step closer, announcing that it has partnered with France-based communications satellite company Eutelsat Communications to use satellites to connect people in remote regions of 14 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa who are out of range of existing broadband networks.  

“Satellite networks are well suited to economically connecting people in low to medium density population areas,” said Monday's announcement, “and the high throughput satellite architecture of AMOS-6 is expected to contribute to additional gains in cost efficiency.”

The two companies will use the broadband capacity of the AMOS-6 satellite, which was built by the Israeli government and is operated by Israeli company Spacecom. The satellite is expected to be launched into space in 2016 by the Falcon 9 rocket developed by Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX.

Facebook committed two years ago to bring the Internet to the three-fifths of the world without it. According to today’s announcement, the social network has helped one billion people in 19 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America get online.

Mr. Zuckerberg unveiled in July a giant drone, which will one day, along with its fleet, be able “to beam Internet to people from the sky,” as Zuckerberg explained of the company’s mission in a Facebook post.

And though a United Nations commission recently pointed to "stubbornly persistent" gap between the Internet-rich and poor, Facebook thinks it can close it. The social media giant reports that there are 100 million people every month accessing Facebook across Africa, upwards of 80 percent of them doing it through their mobile phones.

Not only does Facebook plan to take advantage of the mobile revolution in the developing world to democratize information, it also aims to bring more consumers into the Internet fold for companies to advertise to.

On the Facebook for Business site, where the company notes the benefits to businesses of connecting more people in Africa and other “high-growth regions” to Facebook through their mobile phones: “For brands, the ability to interact with people on their terms, on mobile, translates to a new opportunity to bring value to both people and advertisers.”

Other tech companies are also working to get the developing world online. Just last week, The Christian Science Monitor reported that Google will begin rolling out free Wi-Fi service to 400 railway stations across India.

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