Beneath the billowing orange flames and black smoke seen in picture of a SpaceX rocket exploding today is the destruction of a $195 million communications satellite that was the linchpin in Facebook’s drive to bring internet to rural Africa.
The AMOS-6 communications satellite, which according to its manufacturer was the “largest and most advanced communications satellite ever built in Israel,” was also the device that Facebook hoped would allow them to provide internet access to remotes parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where internet access is spotty or non-existent.
In what was perhaps an awkward coincidence, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in Nairobi today, where — just hours before the explosion in Cape Canaveral — he announced on his personal Facebook page that he dined with “Joseph Mucheru, the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary of Information and Communications,” and “talked about internet access and his ambitious plans for connecting everyone in Kenya.”
A few hours later, the tech mogul announced that he was “deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.”
Not Facebook’s Satellite
To be clear, it’s not really Facebook’s satellite.
The $200 million hunk of orbital metal belongs to Space Communications LTD (more commonly known as Spacecom), a leading satellite communications firm based in Israel, which struck a $195 million deal in late 2012 that would see Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) “plan, manufacture, prepare for launch and provide ground control operations for the AMOS-6 satellite.”
The satellite was slated to — among other things — provide communications services to the Government of Israel, provide TV distribution services in Europe, and broadcast a Ukrainian TV network’s signal.
Facebook appears to have become involved almost three years later, when in October 2015, it struck a deal with satellite communications company Eutelsat to share AMOS-6’s broadband capacity. Facebook would focus on poor and under-served populations in Africa while Eutelsat focused “on serving premium consumer and professional segments.”
Dialing-up the Developing World
While Facebook may have only been one of AMOS-6’s clients, the satellite was very important for the social network’s “Internet.org” effort, which aims to spread internet connectivity to lesser-developed parts of the world.
In a post on his Facebook page in October of last year, Zuckerberg said that he was “excited to announce our first project to deliver internet from space,” saying, “as part of our Internet.org efforts to connect the world,” that “a new satellite called AMOS-6 is going to provide internet coverage to large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.”
The satellite, Zuckerberg had hoped, would play a key role in addressing the troublesome issue of how to bring internet access to areas where basic telecommunications infrastructure are not available.
According to Facebook, as many as 4 billion people — about 60 percent of the world’s population — can’t access the internet, and 1.6 billion of those “live in remote locations with no access to mobile broadband networks, where implementing existing network technologies is so challenging and costly that it will take years to bring everyone affordable access.”
And for companies like Facebook, getting more people online means the potential for new users and greater ad revenues.
Shortly after today’s explosion, the Facebook founder posted on his page: “As I’m here in Africa, I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.”
All Hope Not Lost
While this will be a setback for Zuckerberg’s efforts to wire the world, Zuckerberg said in the same post lamenting the loss of the satellite that “fortunately, we have developed other technologies like Aquila that will connect people as well,” referring to another project that he hopes will increase connectivity.
That project sees a solar-powered “high-altitude unmanned aircraft … that can be used to bring affordable internet to hundreds of millions of people in the hardest-to-reach places.”
The aircraft, according to Facebook, circles a region of about 60 miles in diameter over which it can beam down connectivity — for up to three months.
However, it isn’t clear what regions of the world for which the aircraft is targeted for use.
The aircraft saw its first test flight on July 21.
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