PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES on April 27 said Internet social-media giant Facebook had leased capacity on three in-orbit SES satellites to provide Wi-Fi connectivity in sub-Saharan Africa.
The announcement is the latest Facebook surprise for the satellite industry, which had long viewed Facebook’s Internet.org ambition of providing broadband to poor rural areas worldwide as a huge opportunity for satellite operators.
The SES deal is all the more surprising in that it is apparently for Ku-band capacity. Menlo Park, California-based Facebook last October joined forces with satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris to lease, together, the Ka-band payload on Israel-based Spacecom’s Amos-6 satellite. The two companies will provide, in separate marketing efforts, broadband connectivity to 14 African nations.
Amos-6 is scheduled for launch in August aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Eutelsat and Facebook have divided the $95 million cost of the Amos-6 Ka-band over 4.5-5 years, with an option to extend the contract by two years.
Eutelsat has portrayed the arrangement as a steppingstone to Eutelsat’s larger Ka-band satellite, which was ordered in late 2015 and is scheduled for launch in 2019 to cover 30 African nations. Eutelsat had hinted that Facebook could be a partner in this satellite, in which case the satellite’s throughput could be doubled to 150 gigabits per second.
There has been no announcement since then of a more-substantial Facebook buy-in to satellite-delivered Internet – until the SES statement of April 27.
SES said it will provide an undisclosed amount transponder capacity to Facebook from three satellites – Astra 2G at 28.2 east, Astra 2B at 31.4 degrees east, and Astra 4A at 4.8 degrees east. Astra 2G and 4A both have mixed Ku- and Ka-band capacity; Astra 2B is all-Ku-band.
Two industry officials said Facebook’s SES contract is of short duration and limited scope, and is mainly designed to prove the Express Wi-Fi concept that will be put to broader use on Amos-6. Why the company would elect to debut service in Ku-band, only to switch within months to Ka-band – which presumably would entail a terminal swap – is unclear.
SES said the contract with Facebook “is a Ku-/Ka- mix with, in our view, long-term potential.” Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the contract’s volume and duration.
SES said Facebook’s business with the Astra satellites would use Petah Tikva, Israel-based Gilat Satellite Networks’ X-Architecture SkyEdge II-c ground terminals.
Facebook has long said its strategy to deliver broadband to rural areas in the developing world would be multi-platform and likely include high-altitude aircraft in addition to satellites.
Max Kamenetsky, director of connectivity deployments for Internet.org, outlined the company’s approach in March at the Satellite 2016 conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
“We are not a satellite company,” Kamenetsky said. “For us, the satellite was an investment where we saw a specific opportunity to deliver services to parts of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a first step for us to understand this market, which has not been served very well by operators.”
Kamenetsky said Facebook was still grappling with the issue that satellite and cellular network operators have confronted in low-income rural areas: Who will pay how much for connectivity?
“If we were to bring Wi-Fi to community aggregation points, where people are paying between $1 and $3 per month to connect, will people actually use this?” Kamenetsky said.
“In the past, if you talked to mobile operators, the reason they don’t go into these remote areas is because they believe people will not pay for the data. The standard answer you hear is that people do not understand the value of data, they will not use Internet and this is a lost cause. We want to change that.”
Kamenetsky said the cost of broadband infrastructure – whether satellite or terrestrial – needs to come down “significantly, by orders of magnitude,” to succeed in rural developing-nation markets.
“There’s a whole gamut of technologies that we think can be introduced. We have talked about the high-altitude planes, and we are looking at what can be done [with satellites] in LEO, MEO and GEO orbit. At the end of the day, I happen to think it will be a multitude of constellations and a multitude of technologies that will be required.”