Facebook willing to invest in satellite user equipment

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WASHINGTON — Facebook wants to help the satellite industry drive down costs on user equipment so it can leverage space technology to bring internet access to the rest of the planet.

Wesley Wong, the social media network’s point-man for strategic technology partnerships and sourcing, said March 7 that Facebook continues to view satellite as one of the best ways to bridge the digital divide, and wants to collaborate with more satellite companies to reach that desired outcome.

“If there are opportunities to collaborate with industry to innovate and drive standardization to help reduce that cost, we’d be more than willing to evaluate,” Wong said at the Satellite 2017 conference here.

Facebook procured satellite capacity on four satellites in 2015 — SES’s Astra 2G, 2B and 4A, and Amos-6, the latter being a Spacecom satellite on which Eutelsat had sold the Ka-band payload. The September 2016 loss of Amos-6 in a SpaceX Falcon 9 explosion during a routine fueling test appeared to rattle Facebook’s satellite ambitions. Founder Mark Zuckerberg publicly voiced his disappointment, and went on to highlight other technologies, such as drones. In a recent earnings call, SES said it is still working closely with Facebook to bring satellite connectivity to Africa.

In a rare public appearance before the satellite industry, Facebook affirmed that it hasn’t lost faith in satellite’s potential for connecting the masses.

“We are still evaluating how to accomplish our mission of connecting the entire world,” Wong said. “We do share in the belief that the space industry can play a very important role in reaching every last individual out there. Whether it’s standardization to achieve scale or some other element, we are here to support in whatever way we can to meet our mission.”

Wong emphasized standardizing satellite user equipment as a way to lower the cost for units and make the technology more accessible. Steve McCabe, CEO of ScotSat, a maritime satellite equipment and service provider, pointed to the fragmented nature of satellite communications as one of the big reasons why there is such a range of unique, sometimes costly, equipment options.

“Historically, I think what’s happened is satellite has grown from lots of different types of industries with lots of different types of requirements, and maybe that’s held back standardization somewhat,” he said. “Maybe looking forward now with the advent of Intelsat and OneWeb and the various other large networks that are coming up, maybe there is an opportunity now to try and push standardization forward.”

Wong said Facebook has actively tried to address technological innovation, but has come realize that technology is only part of the solution. Access to stable electricity, electronic devices, and even proving the worth of internet access to those without it have also proven to be challenges.

Regarding the satellite industry, Wong said achieving scale in the production of user equipment might be more important than standardization — though standardization would certainly help with achieving said scale — because higher production volumes should result in lower costs.

“The biggest denominator in all things cost-related is the more scale that we can get out there,” he said. “And for our mission of trying to connect the remaining three or four billion people out there, that’s a lot of scale, and [the] satellite industry we believe is one of the best ways to aggregate all that demand across rural regions or close to rural regions because we can reach all those places that fiber can’t.”

Kymeta, a flat panel antenna maker with a product based on meta-materials, says that scale is a core tenant of its market strategy. The company announced March 7 that its antenna, known as the mTenna, would be available in mid-2017.

Kymeta’s manufacturing partner is Sharp Corp., the Japan-based electronics manufacturer. Sharp is producing the Kymeta antennas on the same manufacturing lines as liquid crystal display television screens, enabling mass production without investing in new infrastructure.

“In order to get scale, we had to find the manufacturing capacity available. That pushes us into a standardization with our own product. That’s why we leverage display infrastructure. That’s our contribution to standardization and how we drop prices,” said Bill Marks, chief commercial officer of Kymeta.

VSAT equipment provider Newtec CEO Thomas Van den Driessche noted that end-user technology has come down in price, but on more of a cost per megabit-level than a cost per terminal.

“When we made our first consumer modems maybe 10 years ago, VSAT broadband was a couple of megabits maximum,” he said. “Now for the same cost or less we talk about 100Mbps [on forward links], 50Mbps return, or something like that. So the cost has gone down in terms of capex per megabit.”

Wong said Facebook is willing not only to work with the industry, but to put its own resources into making satellite technology more practical for the social media network in achieving its goals. Facebook’s connectivity goals could serve as a catalyst on their own in gaining scale, he said.

“When you talk about [connecting] every last individual in the world, what else more is there beyond that to create the mass market?” he said.