SpaceX Rocket Explosion Delays Facebook’s Plans for Universal Broadband Access

An artistic rendition of Facebook's planned satellite, released last year.

– Facebook Satellite Was to Provide Broadband in Sub-Saharan Africa plus Parts of Europe & Middle East

There are about 55 million residences now in sub-Saharan Africa now and it’s expected there’ll be almost 75 million by 2021. Many do not have access to an inexpensive and readily available broadband service because much of Africa was never wired for telephone service. Facebook has big ambitions for making affordable broadband available to everyone in the world. As part of that ambition, it planned to launch a satellite that would provide wireless broadband service called Free Basics to residences in sub-Saharan Africa plus parts of Europe and the Middle East.

Facebook’s planned Free Basics satellite broadband services took a body blow last week when a SpaceX rocket exploded during testing and destroyed the Spacecom Amos-6 satellite it was carrying. Space-X said it’s looking for data that’ll identify the cause. It’s not known how long it will take to build another satellite and attempt another launch. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook was deeply disappointed but that Facebook “remains committed to our mission of connecting everyone and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided.”

The big news is not that a rocket and satellite were destroyed but that Facebook is firmly committed to providing broadband service to every residence in the world. In recent years we have seen how much difference the Internet makes in everything from shopping to watching videos to communicating with friends and families. If everyone in the world could access affordable broadband, the world and its industries would be far different than before broadband first became available.

Facebook, which is accumulating billions in cash, has said it intends to offer free and/or very cheap broadband to consumers. The “but” is that only Facebook-approved Web sites would be available via Free Basics – not the full Web that traditional landline or cellular services offer their subscribers. In short, Free Basics is not “net neutrality.” Facebook has said Free Basics will allow access to Wikipedia, news, weather and health services.

Facebook would manage the Web sites that are available with its and its Free Basics programs. Facebook plans to use them to create the world’s largest social platform in the world – something akin to what AOL tried to do in its early days. Free Basics is currently available in 42 countries, over half of them Africa. But Free Basics has not been welcomed everywhere. India’s competition commission blocked Free Basics because it does not allow net neutrality.

Also supporting Free Basics are Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, and Samsung, all of whom stand to benefit financially from the effort.

It’s a big market. The GSM Association, which represents about 800 cellcos and 250 cellular-related companies, has predicted there’ll be about 700 million smartphones in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020, less than four years away. Most homes do not have wireline broadband so wireless broadband will be their only connection to the Net. Wireless Watch reports that at the end of July, Facebook had some 120 million users in the region – small compared to a total of 1.7 billion users globally. Some 80% of those African users accessed the Web site through a mobile phone.

To help meet its goal, Facebook recently opened its first African office in Johannesburg, South Africa. It wants to establish a dominant presence in less developed countries as it has in countries with more developed Internet infrastructure. Besides, people spend more time accessing Facebook on their mobile devices than they do on fixed devices such as PCs and TVs. At the rate that the technology for wireless broadband is being developed, it may be a long time before “wireless” Africa has to “wire up.” The biggest downside to satellite broadband is the lag time – the time it takes from when a request for a Web page is sent by the users to the time the page appears on the user’s device.

The only other company that has universal broadband plans that are similar to Facebook’s is Google…

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Feature image courtesy Facebook.

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