Facebook subsidiary seeks to assess airborne gear in mostly secret test

Facebook campus
Facebook has demonstrated it's very interested in connecting the unconnected and underconnected using various forms of communications technology. (FierceWireless)

Facebook subsidiary FCL Tech has filed for Special Temporary Authority (STA) to conduct an experiment to test potential new communications applications and equipment in a low-altitude, controlled airborne environment in Southern California.  

Very little else is disclosed in the filing, as attorneys requested much of the related information be kept confidential. Wireless industry consultant Steve Crowley first spotted the application and flagged it on Twitter.

“We continue to work with partners on high altitude platform station (HAPS) system connectivity," a Facebook spokesperson told FierceWirelessTech in a statement Thursday. "We don't have further details to share at this time.”

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The FCC paperwork cites the 25.5-27.5 GHz, 38.0-39.5 GHz, 1715-1850 MHz and 2200-2500 MHz bands as the spectrum FCL wants to use. The tests would be conducted in Camarillo, Calif., in Ventura County, with a start date of Nov. 15 and end date of April 30.

Previous requests for these type of tests have been granted, including in Menlo Park, Calif. 

RELATED: Space debris lands on FCC’s November agenda

FCL’s STA application comes as the FCC just released its November open meeting agenda, where the commission is focused on a host of space-themed items. Among other things, the commission will consider an order that would grant SpaceX’s request to deploy and operate a proposed non-geostationary constellation to provide broadband services around the world.

According to a July Wired article, Facebook is among those companies—like OneWeb and SpaceX—that want to use smaller satellites to connect the planet. Emails obtained by the publication show the social network wants to launch Athena, its own internet satellite, in early 2019. Wired said the emails and subsequent confirmation from Facebook confirmed a story published in May by IEEE Spectrum that used public records to speculate that Facebook had started a satellite internet project.

As Wired noted, pursuing satellite technology is not exactly out of character for Facebook. It spent years working on Aquila, a solar-powered drone designed to beam internet to Earth. Plans for that were scrapped earlier this year, although Facebook said it would support efforts of this kind through partnerships and policy advocacy.

RELATED: Facebook presses for compromise HAPS proposal before WRC-19

Indeed, Facebook has met with FCC staff (PDF) about promoting a U.S. proposal for HAPS ahead of next year’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19). The commission is currently deciding what its position is going to be for outstanding U.S. proposals on the WRC-19 agenda items.

It's Facebook’s recommendation that the FCC champion a proposal in reconciliation with NTIA that includes the 21.5-22 GHz, 24.25-27.25 GHz, 28/31 GHz and 38-39.5 GHz bands, with protections for federal and commercial incumbent services.

Facebook is neither a HAPS manufacturer nor an operator, but acknowledged it has invested in the technology, which can be used by both mobile and satellite operators to provide more affordable broadband. The company is collaborating with Airbus and other HAPS companies to advance spectrum and aviation policy to demonstrate the viability of HAPS systems for providing broadband connectivity in the bands considered by the ITU, which will host WRC-19.