Facebook uses satellite-based data to map population, determine what types of internet service to deploy

Aquila (Facebook)
Facebook has described Aquila as a solar powered aircraft that will beam a signal down to the people in a given area. (Facebook)

Facebook is using data it created to map the planet’s entire human population to help it determine what types of internet service it should use to reach the unconnected or not-so-well connected, according to a CNBC report.

Facebook now knows where 7.5 billion humans live, to within 15 feet, thanks to mapping data it created based on satellites in space and government census numbers, according to the report, which covered an event in San Francisco where Janna Lewis, Facebook's head of strategic innovation partnerships and sourcing, presented. 

"Satellites are exciting for us. Our data showed the best way to connect cities is an internet in the sky," Lewis told about 150 people gathered for a Space Technology and Investment Forum sponsored by the Space Foundation, CNBC reported. "We're trying to connect people from the stratosphere and from space" using high-altitude drone aircraft and satellites to supplement earth-based networks, Lewis said.

The data are used "to know the population distribution" of earth to figure out "the best connectivity technologies" in different locales, Lewis said. "We see these as a viable option for serving these populations" that are "unconnected or under-connected.” 

Facebook is among a growing number of companies trying to connect the unconnected to the internet, including tapping the stratosphere. Facebook’s strategy involves Aquila, a new aircraft architecture it designed that allows the aircraft to stay in the air for months at a time.

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Facebook previously has described Aquila as a solar-powered aircraft that will create a 50-km communications radius for up to 90 days, beaming a signal down to the people in that area. The signal will be received by small towers and dishes that will then convert it into a Wi-Fi or LTE network that people can connect to with their cell phones and smartphones.

Despite earlier attempts at satellite businesses that came and went, new entrants want to take advantage of advancements in technology and try their own satellite ventures.

Companies filed with the FCC last year to launch 8,731 non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) communications satellites, according to Parabolic Arc. Not all of them are proposing to connect the unconnected to the internet; some are geared toward IoT and others are looking at serving the space industry. But overall, performance is expected to be far better than previous satellite generations, with fiberlike speeds and lower latency.      

The CNBC report said that of the 576 U.S. satellites now in orbit, 286—or roughly half—were launched for commercial reasons, citing Steve Butow, the west coast military lead for the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUX. The end result of all this investment will likely be a "space-based broadband data network" that will the basis of "a new space economy," Butow said at the space confab in San Francisco.