Over the past several years, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has had ambitions to help deliver internet connectivity to more people, hoping to get billions of people online and ideally hooked on its growing number of social media services. The idea was essentially copied out of Alphabet subsidiary Google's playbook, which similarly realized that it could garner more users by providing connectivity in emerging markets.
Facebook faced a major setback two years ago when it lost an internet satellite that was intended to deliver connectivity to rural Africa after the SpaceX rocket carrying it exploded. The company never replaced that satellite, which had been built by France's Eutelsat, although it likely got reimbursed through insurance. Facebook is now shuttering its other connectivity play.
Clipping Aquila's wings
Facebook has announced that it is grounding Aquila, the solar-powered internet drone that it has been testing for the past two years. Aquila, which had the wingspan of a commercial airliner, first took flight almost exactly two years ago, about two years after the project began in 2014. That first flight (below) lasted for about 30 minutes.
While the company has made progress with various aspects of the technology over the years, Facebook says it has chosen to stop designing and building its own aircraft in favor of partnering with incumbent aerospace companies like Airbus. The company will close its facility in Bridgwater, U.K., where the drones were being built.
Facebook isn't giving up entirely on its attempts to connect more people to the internet. The company may now be reviving that plan of beaming internet down to earth with satellites, except on a larger scale.
Back to space
IEEE Spectrum reported in May that Facebook appears to have established a shell subsidiary called PointView Tech, which has filed documents with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) detailing plans to develop an internet satellite named Athena that it hopes to launch in early 2019.
Remember that Elon Musk's SpaceX also has grand ambitions to create a constellation of "Starlink" internet satellites, which it estimates could have 40 million subscribers generating over $30 billion in revenue by 2025. The disruptive rocket company launched the first Starlink test satellites into lower earth orbit (LEO) earlier this year.
Today's Falcon launch carries 2 SpaceX test satellites for global broadband. If successful, Starlink constellation will serve least served.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 21, 2018
PointView says its Athena satellites will deliver data speeds that are 10 times faster than SpaceX's Starlink. Tech giants are increasingly turning to the stars with connectivity plans. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is also exploring space internet. Even Apple could be considering developing a space internet network, after hiring experts in spacecraft and satellites last year.
Facebook does seem to be quietly pushing forward with internet satellites. Hopefully the next ones won't get blown to smithereens.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of AAPL and Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends GOOG, GOOGL, AAPL, and Facebook. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on AAPL and short January 2020 $155 calls on AAPL. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.