Facebook's Connectivity Lab aims to spread Internet access via satellites, drones and lasers

Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) is hoping to connect more of the world's population to the Internet using a combination of satellites, drones and lasers, and as part of the effort it is launching a new Connectivity Lab via Internet.org, the group Facebook is spearheading.

Internet.org's primary model of operating is to work with carriers and ISPs around the world to expand access to the Internet, but Facebook is hoping to think outside the box to accomplish that. "We're going to continue building these partnerships, but connecting the whole world will require inventing new technology too. That's what our Connectivity Lab focuses on, and there's a lot more exciting work to do here," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said.

Facebook said the lab is working with experts from Ascenta, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA's Ames Research Center, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post that Internet.org is bringing on key members of the team from Ascenta, which is a small, UK-based company whose founders created early versions of Zephyr, which became the world's longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft. Facebook did not mention Titan Aerospace, a maker of near-orbital, solar-powered drones it was reportedly negotiating a $60 million deal to acquire earlier this month.

In a video to unveil the project, Facebook's Yael Maguire said that Internet.org is looking beyond traditional wireless networks and base stations to get people access to the Internet. In areas with low population densities, it is looking to use low-Earth orbit and geosynchronous satellite systems to deliver high-capacity bandwidth. However, that introduces a host of problems, most notably in getting devices to constantly connect to satellites orbiting the Earth. For suburban environments, the group is thinking of using solar-powered planes that fly at 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) above the surface of the Earth and can broadcast Internet signals for months at a time. Maguire also said the group wants to use lasers as a way to communicate between devices using what is known as free space optics.


Source: Facebook

The new plans dovetail with Facebook's larger mission of working with partners to spread the Internet. Facebook does not have any plans to build or operate its own wireless network, and is instead working with carriers around the globe to connect more people to the mobile Internet, according to Chris Weasler, Facebook's head of global connectivity. He told FierceWireless in February that it's important for Facebook to focus on what it does best and leave the building of networks to operators.

Facebook's vision 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. Google CEO Larry Page said earlier this month at the TED technology conference that Google thinks it can build a "worldwide mesh" network via the balloons.

Both Facebook and Google couch these ventures in altruistic tones of spreading Internet access. But of course, for each of them, wider access to the Internet, especially in untapped emerging markets, means more people will be using their services, which in turn means more customers to sell advertising against.

For more:
- see this Facebook announcement
- see this Facebook post
- see this TheNextWeb article
- see this TechCrunch article

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Facebook: We're not building a wireless network
Facebook's Zuckerberg pushes for free tier of wireless Internet access during MWC keynote
Google engineers parachutes, wins new patent for Project Loon
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