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Is Facebook secretly building an internet satellite? Signs point to yes

Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk may soon be going head to head in space, if clues from FCC filings are as they seem.

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Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
2 min read
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Facebook could be working to boost connectivity from space.

Eutelsat

Facebook may be secretly working on its own satellite broadband service. 

The possible move comes just a few months after SpaceX launched its first two prototype satellites for an internet constellation it hopes may one day be over 11,000 strong.

A partially redacted FCC application obtained by IEEE Spectrum outlines a plan for an experimental satellite from a mysterious company called PointView Tech LLC, which IEEE goes on to connect to Facebook.

The application describes a plan to launch a satellite named Athena that would test the use of high-frequency millimeter wave radio signals, the same technology many in the cellular industry are using to build next-generation 5G networks with more speed and capacity. 

If it works from low-Earth orbit, a satellite broadband service using such high-frequency signals could outdo Elon Musk's SpaceX, which currently hopes to offer gigabit-speed through its planned Starlink service, as well as competitors like the Richard Branson-backed OneWeb

IEEE draws a line between Pointview and Facebook by noting that both organizations used the same lawyer for their FCC filings. There are also other connections, including an antenna location listed in the application that's associated with Facebook's new Los Angeles-area office where there's an opening for an "Extra-Terrestrial Product Manager."

In this case, extraterrestrial doesn't refer to aliens, but to satellites. 

The job description notes that "the successful candidate will have experience taking novel communication/aerospace systems from early development phases to productization" and "in-depth technical knowledge of satellite communication systems ... RF/microwave/millimeter-wave communication systems and laser communication systems."

I've contacted Facebook and Internet.org, Facebook's global connectivity initiative, for comment and will update this post when I hear back. 

In addition to Internet.org, which uses more conventional higher-altitude telecommunications satellites, Facebook has also worked on using drones to boost Wi-Fi speeds

The company had also leased bandwidth on the AMOS-6 satellite to beam internet access to Africa, but that plan went up in smoke, literally, when the Spacex rocket carrying it exploded on the launch pad in 2016.

Whether it's secretly controlled by Facebook or not, Athena may not even exist yet. The FCC application says PointView hopes to launch the experimental satellite in 2019. If it's granted permission to launch and it works, it's still a long road to launch enough satellites to build up a sizable constellation that could offer a reliable broadband service. The larger the geographic area of the service, the more satellites will be required.   

But before any of this work can get started, the FCC still has to give its blessing to launch that first satellite. Fortunately, Athena is the goddess of law and justice and it always helps to have another lawyer on your side. 

First published May 3, 1:11 p.m. PT.
Update, 2:55 p.m. PT: Adds information about Facebook's earlier plan to beam internet access to Africa. 

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