Facebook, Eutelsat block-book satellite capacity to deliver Internet to Africa

Free Basics by Facebook is getting its own bandwidth to deliver services to Africa through a partnership with Eutelsat

Facebook is buying its own satellite bandwidth to deliver free basic Internet services direct to Africans.

Together with satellite operator Eutelsat, Facebook will buy up the entire broadband capacity of the AMOS-6 satellite when it enters service next year, with the goal of expanding Internet access in Africa.

Through its Internet.org initiative, the social network is already helping connect millions of people in developing countries to the Internet. The recently renamed Free Basics by Facebook program makes it possible for the inhabitants of 19 countries to access free, low-bandwidth versions of 60 basic Internet services, including search and health information, from their mobile phones.

That's all very well in developing countries like such as Indonesia or the Philippines, which already have good international Internet connectivity. It's less useful, though, in landlocked African countries far from the fiber-optic cables that link major coastal cities to the global Internet. 

To deliver faster Internet access in countries without those fiber backbones, Facebook and Eutelsat will link terminals in Africa  to dedicated Internet gateways in France, Italy and Israel via the AMOS-6 satellite. The terminals will have dish antennas with a diameter of around 75 centimeters, a Eutelsat representative said.

The companies will share AMOS-6's Ka-band transponders, using them to deliver spot-beam coverage to West, East and Southern Africa. The geostationary satellite carries 36 Ka-band transponders, up to 24 of which could be used simultaneously, although Facebook and Eutelsat intend to use just 18 of them in order to improve performance, said Eutelsat spokeswoman Vanessa O'Connor.

Eutelsat will use its share of the bandwidth to offer Internet access to small and medium-size businesses and more affluent consumers with its commercial offering. The company already offers similar services in Africa over the Ku band, which requires a larger antenna. O'Connor declined to say what bandwidth would be available to businesses, nor what Eutelsat will charge for the service.

Facebook has so far partnered with local cellular operators to deliver the Free Basics by Facebook service, previously known as Internet.org, the name of the initiative through which Facebook promotes the services. The operators provide the bandwidth, typically offering their customers free access to the services, while Facebook provides a lot of the marketing, particularly to potential providers of low-bandwidth services.

Facebook has not said how it will cover the cost of renting the AMOS-6 satellite. Company representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

The deal with AMOS-6 operator Space-Communication (Spacecom) is a multi-year one, although not for the full lifetime of the satellite, which would typically be around 15 years, O'Connor said.

AMOS-6 will cost around US$200 million to build, and is scheduled for launch by year-end. It also carries Ku-band transponders that will deliver TV service to Europe and the Middle East, and is intended as a replacement for AMOS-2, which launched in 2003, according to Spacecom's website.

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