Could Facebook be developing a satellite broadband service?

8 May 2018

Could Facebook’s search for connectivity send it skyward? Image: Vadim Sodovski/Shutterstock

Facebook might be working on its own satellite broadband service, according to reports.

Facebook may be exploring its options when it comes to satellite connectivity, according to a report from IEEE Spectrum.

A filing with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) showed that a company known as PointView Tech is interested in a multimillion-dollar experimental satellite project. It is said it would deliver data 10 times faster than SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.

What is PointView?

PointView seems to be a new subsidiary of Facebook that was apparently formed last year in order to keep the social network’s plans to foray into space under wraps.

The filing was submitted by the same law firm Facebook has used for past projects centring on connectivity and PointView’s postal address points back to a new Facebook office address in southern California. Any firm with an interest in space must get FCC permission prior to launching but they often begin constructing said satellites before paperwork is even filed.

Meet Athena

The new low-orbit satellite is known as Athena and is designed to beam a 10-gigabit-per-second internet connection to the ground.

Three ground stations will send and receive data to and from Athena. One is a satellite teleport near Ventura in California, the next is Mount Wilson Observatory above the Los Angeles hills and, finally, a business park in Northridge, California, where Facebook apparently acquired office space last October.

Athena will remain in orbit for two years from 2019, testing high-frequency millimetre-wave radio signals, which other companies are using to implement 5G technology.

The company will be looking for ways to make high-frequency millimetre waves last longer. Currently, they can fade rapidly in orbit due to absorption by rain or other particles in the air.

Facebook is looking for staff in Northridge, with all three job openings relating to communications and the creation of communication systems to deliver internet access.

The company has historically had an interest in connecting the unconnected, and CTO Mike Schroepfer addressed this at the recent F8 conference. “Having connectivity really boils down to solving a couple of key problems. We need to actually have access, we need to make it affordable, we need to increase awareness. So, we have been working on a portfolio of technological and operational solutions to make this happen.”

FCC worries

The FCC is already concerned about the possibilities of orbital collisions, which may become more of a risk as the need for connectivity on Earth pushes tech firms into space. Facebook will likely need thousands of satellites in orbit at the same time, much like SpaceX, to deliver connectivity.

OneWeb, backed by Richard Branson, is another competitor in the race to build internet satellite constellations.

This is not the first time Facebook has expressed an interest in boosting connectivity. In a letter to the FCC in 2016, the company said: “In remote, sparsely populated areas, where there are significant gaps in infrastructure and the economic barriers of installing that infrastructure are considerably higher, satellite services may provide the most efficient means to connect.

In 2016, an internet coverage satellite from the firm was destroyed when the SpaceX rocket that was carrying it blew up at Cape Canaveral.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects