Facebook drones may take on Google's Project Loon balloons

While Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) contends it has no plans to build or own a wireless network, the social networking giant is apparently interested in investing in airborne technology that could help bring the Internet to unserved areas.

The company is reportedly negotiating a $60 million deal to acquire Titan Aerospace, a maker of near-orbital, solar-powered drones, according to TechCrunch, which first reported the rumor. Though an anonymous source first supplied the information, TechCrunch indicated that it was able to confirm separately that "discussions are taking place."

FierceWirelessTech reached out to Facebook and Titan for more information. "We don't comment on rumors and speculation," said Facebook spokesman Tucker Bounds. Titan did not respond by our deadline.

Facebook's apparent focus on drones recalls a statement from Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos, who said in December 2013 that Amazon was eyeing a delivery-by-drone program to drop packages at people's doors. However, Facebook's plan, which appears to focus on delivering broadband communications to developing markets, would likely have considerably fewer regulatory barriers than Amazon's concept.

Facebook's vision for drone technology appears similar to that of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Project Loon, which has been experimenting with high-altitude balloons equipped with wireless transmission equipment designed to bring Internet access to remote and rural areas of the earth.

TechCrunch offered some specifics on Facebook's plan, saying the company wants to roll out 11,000 of Titan's Solara 60 drones, starting in Africa.

During August 2013, Titan unveiled its Solara line of high-altitude, long-endurance, solar "atmospheric satellites." The company, which was founded in 2012 and is based in Moriarty, N.M., said at the time that the drones could carry telecom, reconnaissance, atmospheric sensors and other payloads.

Titan unveiled its Solara line of high-altitude, long-endurance, solar "atmospheric satellites" in August 2013. Facebook is reportedly negotiating a $60 million deal to acquire Titan and bring the Internet to unserved areas.

Solara aircraft each have a 164-foot wingspan and carry thousands of solar cells. They are capable of staying aloft for months or years at a time at an altitude of 65,000 feet.

If Facebook takes over Titan, it appears the firm's drones will be dedicated to the efforts of Internet.org, which aims to open up Internet access to people worldwide. Internet.org is a pet project of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and was launched on Aug. 20, 2013, with other backers including Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), MediaTek, Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Opera Software, Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and Samsung.

During a keynote address at last month's Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain, Zuckerberg called on wireless carriers in emerging markets to offer a free tier of Internet service with the goal of encouraging wireless subscribers to pay for additional Internet access.

In an interview during MWC with our sister publication FierceWireless, Chris Weasler, Facebook's head of global connectivity, shot down rumors that Facebook wants to build its own network, saying: "We are completely focused right now on partnering with operators." He said Facebook would leverage carriers' network infrastructure to connect more people, including through Internet.org.

It appears, however, that Facebook may be prepared to lend a hand, or perhaps a drone, to operators that are challenged to deliver Internet access to remote areas. Expanding free or low-cost Internet access to new markets would open the door for more people worldwide to access Facebook or its other services, including newly acquired WhatsApp, the over-the-top messaging provider that intends to introduce voice calling services sometime in the second quarter. Facebook agreed last month to pay $16 billion for the OTT provider.

Onavo, the data compression and analytics firm Facebook acquired during October 2013 for an undisclosed amount, likely also has a role to play in this scenario. Onavo's proprietary compression technology could come in very handy in broadband-challenged countries where slow Internet speeds make the efficient use of data crucial for enabling widespread connectivity.

For more:
- see this TechCrunch article
- see this New York Times article
- see this Wall Street Journal article

Related articles:
Mallinson: Facebook pays over-the-top for WhatsApp
Facebook: We're not building a wireless network
Facebook's Zuckerberg pushes for free tier of wireless Internet access during MWC keynote
Analysts: Facebook's WhatsApp deal won't sting U.S. carriers, but may affect those in emerging markets
Google engineers parachutes, wins new patent for Project Loon
Google contends Project Loon, balloon-powered broadband, is crazy enough to work

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