Despite being embroiled in a huge data privacy scandal, Facebook is quietly pushing ahead with plans to deploy a satellite network to connect even more people to its platform, according to a report published Thursday.
A partially redacted FCC filing, obtained by IEEE Spectrum, shows that Facebook has incorporated a shell company called PointView Tech, which has applied for permission to launch an experimental satellite in 2019, called “Athena.”
The filing says the satellite would test the use of high-frequency millimeter wave radio signals — the same technology used to build next-generation 5G networks — that would allow it to connect people in remote areas of the world.
The plans would see Facebook go into direct competition with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is planning to launch a similar service called Starlink, and the Richard Branson-backed OneWeb.
Facebook has not commented on the project, but there are multiple links connecting the Silicon Valley giant to PointView Tech. They use the same lawyer for their FCC filings, they share the same offices, and Facebook recently advertised for an "Extra-Terrestrial Product Manager,” a role requiring an “in-depth technical knowledge of satellite communication systems.”
Facebook is no stranger to efforts to connect those without access to the internet.
Through its Internet.org initiative, it has used lasers, drones, and a giant fixed-wing plane called Aquila, to try to beam internet signals to people in remote parts of Africa.
The company has previously tried using satellite technology, but that ended in disaster in 2016 when the SpaceX rocket carrying Facebook’s $85 million satellite blew up on the launchpad.
Zuckerberg, in Africa at the time the satellite went up in smoke, reiterated Facebook’s dedication to building systems to connect people: “We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided,” he said.
For Facebook, the ability to control the way people connect on top of what content they see holds huge and obvious benefits.
The company is currently partnering with mobile-phone carriers around the world to connect people to its Free Basics service, which offers access to a limited portion of the web for free to users in dozens of countries in Africa and Asia.
But in some countries there has been a backlash against Facebook’s efforts, most notably in India, where the government banned Free Basics over net neutrality concerns. Others have expressed concern that Facebook is hoovering up huge amounts of data about its users without their knowledge, and the company is unwilling to reveal any details about how many people use its service, how often they use it, and what services they access.
“We just simply don't know. That has been the problem, and nobody is being transparent about it,” Nanjira Sambuli, advocacy manager at the Web Foundation, told VICE News, adding that finding any sort of concrete data on Free Basics and its users is next to impossible.
The launch of a satellite service is unlikely to assuage those concerns.
Cover image: A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Friday, March 30, 2018. (Matt Hartman via AP)