It's been almost a month since social networking giant Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) said it would ground Aquila, the solar-powered internet drone it had been working on for roughly four years. The company said that it would pivot to a new strategy of partnering with aerospace companies instead of trying to design its own aircraft internally. Meanwhile, there had been clues that Facebook was developing its own internet satellite dubbed Athena under the guise of a shell company called PointView Tech.
That speculation has now proven to be true.
Facebook fesses up
WIRED has confirmed that Facebook is indeed the parent company of PointView Tech, after obtaining documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Facebook acknowledged that it is working on an internet satellite in a statement to the outlet: "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."
You may recall that Facebook had lost an internet satellite when the SpaceX rocket that was supposed to carry it to space exploded in 2016. However, that satellite was made by Eutelsat Communications. It sounds like this time around, Facebook is designing and developing the Athena satellite itself, which is also intended to operate from a lower orbit.
What kind of business is Facebook considering?
The bigger question will be what model Facebook intends to utilize in deploying a constellation of internet satellites, which would be astronomically expensive to deploy and operate at scale.
By way of comparison, Alphabet's Loon, which just recently graduated from its moonshot factory, provides internet connectivity with large balloons that lift cell antennas to the edge of space. Loon's customers are existing cell carriers, not end consumers. On the other hand, SpaceX is interested in selling connectivity directly to consumers with its own internet satellites, and expects to have 40 million subscribers bringing in $30 billion in revenue by 2025.
Beyond developing the Athena hardware, it's anyone's guess as to what Facebook has up its sleeve in terms of the business model. The company has long expressed an interest in providing internet connectivity to the most underserved markets, but the economic challenge is that many users in those markets may not be willing to pay hefty subscription fees, and Facebook's ad monetization is poor in emerging markets.
Investors may not have to wait too long to find out, though, as the social network is reportedly targeting a launch in early 2019.