Facebook May Have Secret Plans to Build a Satellite-Based Internet

Public filings suggest the social media giant is quietly developing orbital tech to rival efforts by SpaceX and OneWeb to deliver Internet by satellite

Illustration of a satellite, earth, and internet beamed to a computer with Facebook on it.
Illustration: iStockphoto
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Facebook may soon join SpaceX and OneWeb in the rush to deliver Internet from orbit.

A filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week revealed details of a multi-million dollar experimental satellite from a stealthy company called PointView Tech LLC. The satellite, named Athena, will deliver data 10 times faster than SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellites, the first of which launched in February.

However, PointView appears to exist only on paper. In fact, the tiny company seems to be a new subsidiary of Facebook, formed last year to keep secret the social media giant’s plans to storm space.

Many technology companies believe the future of the Internet is orbital. Around half the people on the planet lack a broadband Internet connection, particularly those who live in rural areas and developing nations. SpaceX aims to put nearly 12,000 Starlinks into low Earth orbit (LEO), to deliver gigabit-speed Internet to most of the Earth’s surface. Rival OneWeb, funded by Japan’s SoftBank, chipmaker Qualcomm, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, plans similar global coverage using perhaps 2,500 LEO satellites.

In early 2019, PointView’s Athena will also head out to LEO, on an Arianespace Vega rocket. Athena is about the same size and weight (150 kg) as SpaceX and OneWeb’s satellites, but Athena will use high-frequency millimeter-wave radio signals that promise much faster data rates. The company estimates its E-band system will deliver up to 10 gigabits per second. “PointView is aiming to understand whether a... system using E-band spectrum can be used for the provision of fixed and mobile broadband access in unserved and underserved areas,” it wrote in the FCC application.

Space companies based in the United States must get permission from the FCC before launching, and often start building satellites and ground stations long before they file their paperwork. “PointView has begun construction of the proposed satellite facilities at its own risk,” says its application. “It notified the Commission... in writing that it planned to begin construction at its own risk in July 2016.”

However, according to records in Delaware, the company was only incorporated there in April 2017. PointView has filed no annual reports and has no named directors or shareholders. Instead, a paper trail leads to Facebook in California.

To start, PointView Tech has the same corporate agent in Delaware as other Facebook subsidiaries, including FCL Tech Inc., the company that managed its early connectivity tests. PointView’s application to the FCC was also filed by the same Washington, D.C. law firm—and even the same lawyer—that wrote previous Facebook FCC applications. (The law firm did not respond to requests for comment).

PointView specifies three ground stations in its application that will send data to Athena in orbit and receive it in turn. One is a so-called satellite ‘teleport’ near Ventura, Calif., that is shared by a number of satellite companies. The second is Mount Wilson Observatory in the hills above Los Angeles, another popular location for communications hardware.

But the third location, described in the application as housing a back-up antenna, is an anonymous business park in the Northridge area of the city. Facebook was reported to have leased 80,000 square feet of office space here in October last year, and the building is currently undergoing refurbishment.

Facebook currently lists three job openings for its Northridge office, all related to communications and connectivity. An Extra-Terrestrial Product Manager, for instance, is expected to have “in-depth technical knowledge of satellite [and] .... millimeter-wave communication systems.” One current Facebook staff member’s LinkedIn profile says that he is working on “millimeter-wave communication product design & development” for satellites.

Facebook did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but the company has long been interested in millimeter-wave systems. As early as 2015, FCL Tech filed an FCC application to “test potential new communication applications using the E-band” from drones, in and around Los Angeles. In 2016, Facebook and its global connectivity spin-out Internet.org announced the first test flights of its high-altitude solar-powered Aquila drones using E-band technology, and tests of this technology continued through 2017.

The company has also been thinking about satellites. In a 2016 letter to the FCC, the company wrote, “Facebook recognizes the important role that satellite plays in improving and expanding connectivity... In remote, sparsely populated areas, where there are significant gaps in infrastructure and the economic barriers of installing that infrastructure are considerably higher, satellite services may provide the most efficient means to connect.”

There are technical barriers to using E-band radio from orbit, however. High-frequency millimeter waves fade quickly and are easily absorbed by rain or other particles in the air. Part of Athena’s two-year mission will be to test just how big of a problem that is. “PointView plans to publish many of its experimental findings, including atmospheric attenuation model validation data,” says its application.

PointView expects to get download speeds of around 10 Gbps at its ground stations, with uplink speeds topping 30 Gbps. But because Athena is in a low Earth orbit, it will only fly above the three ground stations a couple of times each day, and for less than eight minutes at a time. If Facebook is serious about providing global connectivity, it will need to copy SpaceX and OneWeb and have thousands of satellites in orbit simultaneously. That might concern the FCC, which is taking the risks of orbital collisions very seriously.

If the FCC does balk at crowding thousands more Facebook satellites into LEO, it won’t be the first time that Elon Musk has thwarted Mark Zuckerberg’s orbital Internet plans. In 2016, a satellite destined to provide Internet coverage in Africa for Internet.org was destroyed when the SpaceX rocket that was carrying it blew up at Cape Canaveral. Whoever is behind PointView will be hoping for a much less dramatic launch.

This article appears in the June 2018 print issue as “Tech Giants Race to Build Orbital Internet.”

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