Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday described his plans for bringing broadband Internet to remote areas through satellites, lasers and drones. To support that vision, the company announced Friday that it has purchased the UK-based Ascenta, a pioneer in solar-powered unmanned aircraft.
The purchase price for Ascenta was reportedly $20 million.
At this point in humanity's evolution, only one-third of the planet's population has Net access. In a post Thursday on Facebook's blog, Zuckerberg wrote that he wanted to share some additional information his company's Connectivity Lab is doing to "deliver the Internet to everyone" through the non-profit organization Internet.org.
Founded last year, Internet.org's backers include Facebook and several mobile phone companies (Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera Software and Qualcomm). Google's Project Loon is an R&D project with a similar vision of providing Net access to remote areas, but through the use of high-altitude balloons.
Philippines and Paraguay
Zuckerberg said that the organization's efforts in the Philippines and Paraguay "have doubled the number of people using mobile data with the operators we've partnered with," resulting in 3 million people gaining Net access.
The Connectivity Lab's team, he said, includes experts in aerospace and communications technology from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and Ames Research Center. Additionally, specialists are being added from Ascenta, which created early versions of Zephyr, the world's longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft.
His post links to the Internet.org site, which features a video promoting the idea of solar-powered planes providing connectivity to remote areas.
The site describes the use of satellites with very high capacities for areas of low population density, solar-powered planes flying for months in circular formations to support suburban areas, and infrared lasers connecting the flying platforms.
Cost vs. Benefit
Matt Davis, director of Consumer and SMB Telecom Services at industry research firm IDC, told us that Internet.org's vision comes down "as always" to cost versus benefit.
He said this scheme might make sense for "someone in a remote area that absolutely has to have connectivity for something like safety or a commercial reason," although he pointed out that "solar-powered drones deployed so someone can update their Facebook page seems a bit of a stretch."
It would also seem to be a stretch for Internet.org or carriers to expect monthly service fees from areas of the world where many people do not have enough money for food. Internet.org has a stated goal of dramatically reducing the cost of broadband access, possibly even making basic services free of charge, a scenario that Zuckerberg has called "a 911 for the Internet."
Davis brought up the question of how this effort will be paid for over the long run, and suggested that perhaps Facebook would monetize the connectivity in ways not involving subscriptions. Subsidies by the local governments might be involved, but, again, high-speed Internet access may be low on their budget list of priorities.