Facebook and Eutelsat Lease Ka-band Capacity To Help Connect Africa

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PARIS — Social media giant Facebook and satellite fleet operator Eutelsat, in one of the first concrete projects on behalf of Facebook’s Internet.org plan to connect unconnected populations worldwide, on Oct. 5 said they would jointly lease Ka-band broadband satellite capacity covering Africa.

The two companies said they had leased the entire Ka-band payload on Israel-based Spacecom’s Amos-6 satellite, scheduled for launch in mid-2016 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket operated by SpaceX of Hawthorne, California. Eutelsat said the lease of the capacity, to be financed about equally by Facebook and Eutelsat, is for five years, ending in 2021.

Amos-6, under construction by Israel Aerospace Industries, has a payload including 36 Ka-band spot beams with a total throughput of 18 gigabits per second. It also carries a 39-transponder Ku-band payload that Spacecom will use for its business. The satellite will operate at 4 degrees west longitude in geostationary orbit.

Facebook and Eutelsat, after a technical analysis weighing customer power requirements, have concluded that only 18 of the spot beams can be used simultaneously without sacrificing user experience in favor of broader coverage. The project will be used to provide broadband connectivity in 14 nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Facebook of Menlo Park, California, consulted numerous satellite fleet operators before deciding on the Eutelsat partnership. Avanti Communications of London was one of those consulted, although if Facebook had decided that Ka-band was the preferred frequency for Internet.org in Africa it had few options for near-term capacity.

For Paris-based Eutelsat, the Facebook linkup — to be cemented by agreements with the 14 governments whose territories will be covered — is one way of defending its market ambitions from low-orbiting satellite constellations now being designed with Africa as a prime target, such as OneWeb of Britain’s Channel Islands.

Eutelsat said it would finance the construction of three gateway Earth stations for the project, located in France, Italy and Israel. Eutelsat said the choice of prime contractor for the Earth stations, and for the user terminals, has not been made.

The two companies are expected to coordinate the purchase of user terminals to benefit from volume discounts with whichever supplier they select.

Eutelsat’s own consumer broadband service, called Tooway, is centered on Europe and uses Carlsbad, California-based ViaSat Inc.’s consumer premises technology.

Facebook’s Internet.org goal is to bring broadband to populations that are beyond the reach of existing telecommunications grids. The company has been exploring multiple delivery platforms, including satellites, to provide the service.

“Facebook’s mission is to connect the world and we believe that satellites will play an important role in addressing the significant barriers that exist in connecting the people of Africa,” Internet.org Vice President Chris Daniels said in a statement.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg issued a statement  — via Facebook — about the partnership:

I’m excited to announce our first project to deliver internet from space. As part of our Internet.org efforts to connect the world, we’re partnering with Eutelsat to launch a satellite into orbit that will connect millions of people.

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

As part of our collaboration with Eutelsat, a new satellite called Amos-6 is going to provide internet coverage to large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. The Amos-6 satellite is under construction now and will launch in 2016 into a geostationary orbit that will cover large parts of West, East and Southern Africa. We’re going to work with local partners across these regions to help communities begin accessing internet services provided through satellite.

This is just one of the innovations we’re working on to achieve our mission with Internet.org. Connectivity changes lives and communities. We’re going to keep working to connect the entire world — even if that means looking beyond our planet.

Eutelsat will use the capacity to provide connectivity to small businesses, not to individual homes, Eutelsat spokeswoman Vanessa O’Connor said Oct. 5. A new Eutelsat subsidiary is being created in Britain to market the capacity to Eutelsat customers. Facebook will be responsible for its own marketing and sales.

Amos-6’s 39 Ku-band transponders, meanwhile, will be used to develop Spacecom’s existing African market.

Spacecom and Eutelsat are collaborating at 16 and 17 degrees east longitude, where both have satellites in service, to beam Ku-band satellite television to a large swath of Africa following an agreement reached in November 2014.