Is another broadband option brewing? Facebook is building a satellite

SpaceX
GeoTel

Tired of the monopoly that most internet service providers (ISPs) have over their communities? How about a different kind of telecommunications giant instead?

In publicly disclosed FCC emails and in a confirmation to Wired, Facebook has revealed that it is looking to launch an in-house-developed satellite called Athena to offer broadband service to “unserved and underserved” areas. The low Earth orbit satellite is slated to launch sometime early next year, and would first have a “limited duration” mission. It seems likely that Facebook could then launch Athena again for a longer period of time if its initial trial proves to be successful.

“While we have nothing to share about specific projects at this time, we believe satellite technology will be an important enabler of the next generation of broadband infrastructure, making it possible to bring broadband connectivity to rural regions where internet connectivity is lacking or non-existent,” a Facebook spokesperson said about Athena.

IEEE Spectrum speculated as early as May of this year that Facebook was working on a satellite internet project, citing emails with the FCC — and it’s far from alone. Both SpaceX and OneWeb aim to beam internet down via satellite to underserved communities; SpaceX launched the first two of a planned large fleet of Starlink satellites for this purpose in February, and received FCC approval for the plan in March.

For the time being, Facebook’s project is nowhere near as ambitious. This first satellite seems more of a trial than anything else, as internet from low-Earth orbit would necessitate a bevy of satellites (a la Starlink) for real coverage.

That said, it’s still interesting to see what Facebook plans, especially considering that its previous attempts at these sorts of services didn’t work well. Earlier this year, the company decided to abandon efforts to build its own internet drone after four years of development. We’ll see how well this latest project fares.

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