Facebook developing satellite internet for Africa

8 October 2015

Facebook and French satellite operator Eutelsat wants to launch an internet-satellite that could boost internet connectivity in more than 14 African countries, including South Africa. Easier and more reliable access to the internet could offer substantial benefits to the vision of the social, educational and health care ideals of the National Development Plan.

The Facebook-financed satellite, named Amos-6, would be able to offer faster and more reliable internet access to isolated areas in Africa, and was scheduled to be completed and in orbit by 2016, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, posted on the social networking site on 5 October.

“Facebook has been exploring ways to use aircraft and satellites to beam internet access down into communities from the sky,” Zuckerberg wrote. “To connect people living in remote regions, traditional connectivity infrastructure is often difficult and inefficient, so we need to invent new technologies.”

The satellite project is part of Facebook’s Internet.org non-profit initiative that aims to bring free and reliable internet access to the two-thirds of the world that have been unable to receive it.

Other projects include using solar-powered drones to beam out internet signals to rural areas, and the set-up of the Innovation Lab to mimic real-world connectivity issues for developers to test their apps’ performances. Similarly, Google’s Project Loon, that uses high-altitude balloons to bring internet to isolated areas, is being tested in the US, Australia and parts of Saharan Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s current level of broadband connectivity is the lowest in the world, according to the United Nations’ 2014 State of Broadband report. It reaches less than 2% of the populations in countries such as Guinea, Somalia, Burundi and Eritrea. The internet remains a novelty and not so much the vital communications tool needed to push African development and innovation forward.

Governments will be able to use the surge in access to bring better services to people in rural areas: health and social services, education facilities and development capacity. In South Africa, this would fulfil outcomes of the National Development Plan’s Vision 2030, such as addressing the question of quality education, developing skills and, ultimately, creating a surge of economic growth in South Africa and on the rest of the continent.

Toby Shapshak, a technology trends expert, told ENCA news yesterday that satellites offered the best option for African internet access. “Satellites are the most rugged and reliable method to supply internet, but also the most expensive,” he said. Facebook’s investment in the project was both pioneering and momentous on a global level, he added.

Facebook had just skipped ahead, over existing landline and cellular infrastructure, Shapshak explained, and had chosen to use satellites that would offer deregulated, unrestricted access. It would be unfettered by any laws of the countries it would service, offering a freer internet, while giving users fast and reliable internet access.

While the idea might seem a little “pie in the sky”, he added, satellite technology was a proven method for connectivity – notably with conventional global telecommunications that had existed for more than 50 years. Industrial and global corporations present in Africa have been small-scale satellite internet connectivity for over five years, with the large costs involved making it impossible to roll out on a larger scale.

With the Facebook investment, though, the idea of bringing fast, reliable and cost-effective broadband internet to Africa is slowly becoming a reality.

“More places in Africa and South Africa that previously, due to a lack of infrastructure, could not get regular, effective internet access, will now have the opportunity to get it,” Shapshak said.

He said Facebook’s move into internet service provision was a “bold and adventurous” one, a move that would spur the local and international service provider business into rethinking their own game of providing better internet services.

Full interview with Toby Shapshak on ENCA

Source: News24Wire