FIBER OPTIC CABLES are the gold standard of a good internet connection, but laying them can be expensive, and in some parts of the world, a physically daunting task. So in remote corners of the globe, people often connect to the internet instead via massive geostationary satellites. These school bus-size instruments are especially far away, producing significantly slower connections. A host of companies believe the better way to connect the estimated half of Earth’s population that’s still offline is to launch “constellations” of smaller satellites into low Earth orbit, around 100 to 1,250 miles above our planet.
According to emails obtained from the Federal Communications Commission in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by WIRED, and confirmation from the company itself, Facebook is officially one of them.
The emails show that the social network wants to launch Athena, its very own internet satellite, in early 2019. The new device is designed to “efficiently provide broadband access to unserved and underserved areas throughout the world,” according to an application the social network appears to have filed with the FCC under the name PointView Tech LLC.
With the filing, Facebook joins Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Softbank-backed OneWeb, two well-funded organizations working on similar projects. In fact, SpaceX launched the first two of what it hopes will be thousands of its Starlink satellites just this past February.
The emails, which date back to July 2016, and subsequent confirmation from Facebook, confirm a story published in May by IEEE Spectrum, which used public records to speculate that Facebook had started a satellite internet project.
‘We believe satellite technology will be an important enabler of the next generation of broadband infrastructure.’
The new emails detail meetings between FCC officials and lawyers from a firm Facebook appears to have hired, which specializes in representing clients before government agencies. In one exchange from 2016, a lawyer from the firm requests to meet with FCC officials in the Office of Engineering & Technologyand the International Bureau Satellite Division to discuss applying for an experimental license to construct and operate a “small LEO [low Earth orbit] satellite system with a limited duration mission.” The emails indicate that Facebook also set up subsequent meetings with the FCC in June and December of 2017.
In another exchange from late April of this year, the same lawyer asks to arrange another meeting to discuss his client’s “small satellite experimental application.” That application was publicly filed with the FCC the next day under the name PointView Tech LLC. In many of the exchanges, nothing directly connects PointView to Facebook. The lawyer mostly refers to his client using that name, rather than the social network’s. But some of the emails contain evidence that PointView is a subsidiary of the tech giant.
In one email from 2016, for example, the same lawyer uses a different company name to refer to his client, FCL Tech, which has been previously identified as a Facebook company. In a separate December 2017 email, the lawyer refers to “FCL Tech/PointView LLC” as though they are the same entity.
Then, in an email from May of this year, the lawyer directly refers to Facebook. In an exchange coordinating a meeting that apparently took place on May 10, the lawyer says four representatives “from Facebook” would be attending. According to their LinkedIn profiles, the individuals named are all employed at the social network as lawyers, policy leads, or engineering heads.