Facebook has confirmed plans to launch a low-Earth orbit (LEO) broadband satellite early next year in what could be the first step toward a constellation of satellites, according to .
A May 2018 report from IEEE Spectrum provided evidence that a satellite company called PointView Tech LLC is a subsidiary created by Facebook to pursue broadband plans under the code name “Athena.
“When contacted by , Facebook confirmed that Athena is their project,” wrote on Friday.
While traditional broadband satellites suffer from high latencies because they orbit the Earth at about 35,400km, low-Earth orbit satellites could provide gigabit Internet service with latencies similar to cable and fiber. Facebook is one of several companies with LEO satellite plans, but companies including SpaceX and OneWeb are further along in their development.
PointView described the Athena project in an application to the Federal Communications Commission.
“While we have nothing to share about specific projects at this time, we believe satellite technology will be an important enabler of the next generation of broadband infrastructure, making it possible to bring broadband connectivity to rural regions where Internet connectivity is lacking or non-existent,” a Facebook spokesperson told . ( and Ars Technica are both owned by Condé Nast.)
A public records request also turned up an email thread in which PointView Tech requested a meeting with FCC officials about its satellite application. The emails show the meeting was scheduled for May 10 of this year; one email from PointView’s lawyer noted that four Facebook executives would be attending.
The public records request also turned up similar emails between PointView representatives and the FCC in July 2016. We contacted Facebook for more details this morning and will update this story if we get a response.
Facebook plan lags behind SpaceX and OneWeb
Facebook’s project isn’t as far advanced as the plans of SpaceX and other companies. The FCC in March this year approved SpaceX’s plan to launch up to 4,425 low-Earth orbit satellites between 2019 and 2024 at altitudes of 1,110km to 1,325km. OneWeb obtained a similar FCC approval in June 2017.
By contrast, Facebook’s Athena application sought “experimental authorization to launch and operate a single low-earth orbit… satellite” in early 2019. The satellite would be in a “sun-synchronous orbit between 500-550km,” and it would communicate with two earth stations in California’s Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
The goal is to “examine the suitability of LEO satellites using millimeter wave frequencies… to provide broadband Internet access to unserved and underserved areas across the globe,” the document says. The satellite tests are slated to “run for approximately two years after the start of in-orbit operations.”
The experiment would test both fixed and mobile broadband access.
While the plan consists of just one satellite for now, Facebook could build an LEO constellation if it gets good results from the tests. The test also might not lead to a commercial broadband service. Facebook has previously tested terrestrial wireless broadband and drone-powered Internet access, but recently the company decided to stop building its own drones.
As we’ve previously reported, each company building a large satellite constellation needs to plan carefully in order to minimize the risk of collisions and space debris.