Facebook experimenting with LEO satellite technology

IEEE Spectrum and Mark Harris have unearthed another satellite scoop, digging up Facebook work on a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellation to deliver worldwide broadband.

A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filing from PointView Tech LLC describes an experimental satellite called Athena.  The satellite would be built by Space Systems Loral and operate radios in E-band spectrum, with 71-76 GHz for downlinks and 81-86 GHz for uplinking information.  Athena would be put into a 500 to 550 kilometer orbit in early 2019 and operate on a two year trial once in operation.  The satellite would be around 0.33 cubic meters and weigh in at 150 kilograms.

Athena would communicate with three ground stations in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.  Downlinks could be as fast as 10 Gbps while uplinks could reach 30 Gbps, with the single satellite providing about 8 minutes of useful transmission time overhead a couple times a day.  In comparison, SpaceX’s StarLink satellites are expected to deliver downlink speeds of 1 Gbps, but nobody has tried the E-band radio frequency spectrum for satellite operations.  The higher frequencies could have problems with rain or other particulates, like fog or smog.

On the other hand, Facebook has conducted tests of E-band using a high-altitude solar powered drone. A fleet of small satellites could be used to provide 24×7 coverage of the entire globe, but there’s more to the Facebook connection than just E-band and drone experiments.  Harris points out PointView Tech has the same corporate agent as other Facebook subsidiaries in Delaware and the same Washington D.C. law firm and lawyer wrote up previous FCC filings.

Another clue to Facebook involvement is PointView’s filing lists an address in Los Angeles which just so happens to be where Facebook is leasing 80,000 square feet of office space. Facebook also has a job opening out of that office for an “Extra-Terrestrial Product Manager” working with aerospace technologies.

Facebook has long discussed various ways and means to provide broadband connectivity to the underserved and unserved, including the aforementioned solar powered drone.  It had planned to lease transponder time on the AMOS-6 satellite to deliver broadband to parts of Africa, but AMOS-6 was destroyed by a pre-launch accident in September 2016.

A bigger question is what Facebook may or may not do if its’ experimental satellite has a successful test.  A number of companies, including OneWeb, SpaceX, and Telesat, are building large satellite constellations to provide broadband service around the globe, with multiple phases planned to add additional capacity.  OneWeb plans to launch its first operational satellites later this year, while SpaceX and Telesat are currently operating technology pathfinder satellites before ordering production hardware.  There’s also the question of what Boeing plans to do with its FCC licenses to operate a large satellite constellation; so far Boeing hasn’t announced a partner it can work with, since it just wants to build hardware and let someone else deliver end-to-end broadband services.

By the time Facebook finishes up its test period, one or more LEO broadband constellations should be moving towards operation.  It may be easier for Facebook to buy time in bulk to provide “free” or subsidized Internet access.  The company could also choose to open source its E-band satellite findings, encouraging others to tap into the technology to increase data rates and lower the cost of satellite broadband for all.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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