Why Facebook wants to use satellites to connect Africa to the Internet

Facebook announced on Monday that it is partnering with a French satellite operator to provide its own Internet.org service to larger swaths of Sub-Saharan Africa by mid-2016.

Feisal Omar/Reuters
A Somali man browses the Internet on his mobile phone at a beach along the Indian Ocean coastline in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, in January 2014. Facebook announced on Monday that is partnering with French satellite operator Eutelsat to bring affordable Internet service via satellite to sub-Saharan Africa, beginning in the second half of 2016.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has often spoken about how Internet access can help lift people out of poverty, most recently at the United Nations, proposing a range of technologies including drones, satellites, and lasers in order to bring more users online.

On Monday, the company announced that it would partner with Eutelsat, a French satellite operator, in order to provide users in Sub-Saharan Africa with Facebook's affordable wireless service, Internet.org.

As part of a multi-year agreement, the two companies are partnering with Israeli satellite manufacturer Spacecom to use the “entire broadband payload” on a forthcoming satellite called the AMOS-6. The project will begin providing service to parts of western, eastern, and southern Africa by the second half of 2016, the two companies said in a statement.

“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, vice president of Internet.org, said in the statement.

The company’s partnership with Eutelsat comes as several tech firms are increasingly vying to connect the “unconnected billions” of users without access to the Internet in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

The Indian government recently partnered with Google to introduce free wireless Internet in 400 of the country’s busiest railway stations, while Tesla head Elon Musk announced a plan in 2014 for what he called a “constellation” of satellites to provide free Internet access.

Tech companies see Africa as a particular challenge when it comes to Internet access because many people were never able to benefit from wired broadband service, instead moving directly to wireless Internet, the Washington Post reports. By 2020, only 2 in 5 users in sub-Saharan Africa will have access to mobile Internet service, a report by the GSM Association found.

But Facebook’s Internet.org, which launched in 2013, has proved controversial, particularly in India, where activists have assailed the service for violating "Net Neutrality" rules by allowing users to access only a range of sites that partner with Facebook while blocking others. The backlash led Facebook recently to rebrand the service as “Free Basics,” emphasizing that the service is intended to be an affordable way to get more users online.

In an effort to speed up Internet adoption, the company has also launched efforts to partner with local telecom companies in 17 countries, the Post reports.

While the company is promoting the service for its altruistic potential to connect people across the developing world, expanding Internet.org via satellite will also likely allow the company to gain large amounts of users for its own social network.

In announcing the project, Eutelsat executives pointed to its own potential to gain millions of satellite adopters outside of the company’s primary European base.

Outside of gaining users, it’s still unclear how the project will exactly represent an immediate moneymaking opportunity for the social media giant, though the company’s messages to local companies about Internet.org may offer a clue.

“Internet.org brings new users onto mobile networks on average over 50 percent faster after launching free basic services,” the company wrote in a blog post in July, “and more than half of the people who come online through Internet.org are paying for data and accessing the internet within the first 30 days.”

“These points show that Internet.org ... is successful in showing people the value of the internet and helping to accelerate its adoption,” the post added.

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