SpaceX explosion sees Facebooks African internet project go up in smoke

The Facebook CEO said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ in explosion of Falcon 9 rocket carrying satellite intended to provide internet coverage to parts of Africa

In October last year Mark Zuckerberg, Facebooks CEO, proudly announced his first project to deliver internet from space.

The post read:

“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.”

 

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What a difference a year makes

But then, dramatically, earlier this week, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, destroying its entire payload including the $200 million AMOS-6 communications satellite belonging to Facebook which was intended to provide a crucial data link for Facebooks’ Internet.org project.

Experts are still sorting through what caused the explosion and what it means for SpaceX, whose shares were down by $600 million by close of trading yesterday, Friday, but it’s already clear the explosion will be a major setback for Internet.org’s ambitions in sub-saharan Africa.

 

SpaceX Falcon 9 explodes on the launch pad

 

In the broad view, Internet.org aims to connect the world’s poorest people to the internet – but Facebook’s project has drawn some criticism for how it approaches that goal. The most controversial example is Free Basics, which offers a limited version of the internet for free by partnering with specific apps and services. That system was criticized by many as “Zero-rating” – a violation of the principles of net neutrality — and was ultimately banned in India after intense lobbying.

But the satellite destroyed this week was set to be used in an entirely different project. AMOS-6 would have provided backhaul for Internet.org’s Express Wi-Fi system, which connects rural internet providers to the broader internet. Anyone connecting to an Express Wi-Fi provider will experience the same, full internet as anyone else, with no limitations or favoured apps. As a result, it’s been able to operate even in countries that rejected Free Basics, including India where it launched last month.

Free Basics is still active in 23 countries across Africa and shows no signs of slowing down but its growth has been largely independent of Express Wi-Fi. Free Basics typically focuses on areas where internet infrastructure is available, but where access is too expensive for much of the population. By restricting access, Free Basics can provide more people with access to basic services, even as it runs the risk of creating a multi-tiered internet.

 

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Express Wi-Fi tackles a different problem. Instead of focusing on areas that are already connected, Express Wi-Fi looks to build out back-end infrastructure to areas too poor and remote for a conventional telecom to justify the investment. Once the backhaul connectivity is available, local entrepreneurs take on the work of bringing it to the average consumer – but it’s only possible because of the infrastructure provided by Internet.org.

As a result, the Express Wi-Fi project has been applauded by some of the same groups that criticized Free Basics. Access Now raised concerns about Free Basics in 2015, arguing the tiered system might “serve to create a new form of digital divide.” But when we spoke to Access Now’s Peter Micek about the Express Wi-Fi project, his reaction was far more positive.

“They do seem to be focusing on these programs that aim to provide much more open access,” Micek said.

“We’re really excited about the momentum around bringing access to areas that don’t have it.”

There’s still the possibility of vertical integration in the long term, for example, integrating Free Basics into Express Wi-Fi deployments but given the difference between the two services’ clients, it’s not clear that such an integration would make sense, and furthermore it could endanger many of the independent businesses built on top of Express Wi-Fi’s infrastructure.

 

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Express Wifi’s focus on underserved areas will make the destroyed satellite particularly difficult to replace. It’s still unclear what specific areas would have been served by the satellite – those deals would have been made once AMOS-6 was safely in orbit — but the whole point was to reach remote areas with no other way to connect. With the satellite gone, those areas will likely remain cut off.

Facebook’s Connectivity Lab has a number of more ambitious plans for connecting rural areas, but none are developed enough to come to the rescue. The solar-powered router drones — known internally as Project Aquila — had their first test launch earlier this summer, but the project is ambitious and unusual enough it’s likely to take years of further testing to reach full deploy.

Another project, called ARIES, would let remote areas build cheaper, more efficient cell towers, but similarly, that project could take decades to complete. Until those are ready, Express Wi-Fi will have to rely on more conventional methods.

Facebook is still figuring out how to respond to the explosion, but the most likely path forward is another satellite, which will take plenty of money and time to deploy. It’s a surprising setback, given the vast resources at Facebook’s disposal, but it’s less surprising for those familiar with satellite launches. On average, one in every twenty launches will lose its payload, whether due to deployment problems, engine failure, or a sudden blowup like we saw this week. As routine as those launches seem, they’re still a gamble — and Facebook, Internet.org, and anyone hoping to build a business on Express Wi-Fi’s new backhaul just lost.

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