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Facebook Built an Actual Plane to Bring the World Internet Access

Facebook wants to bring people Internet access from the stratosphere.


It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Facebook?

The tech behemoth has built an actual plane — a 140-foot, solar-powered, unmanned Aquila — to serve as a flying Internet hub that will provide Wi-Fi access to parts of the world where connectivity is lacking.

The plane isn’t just an idea or a mockup. An actual version of the plane was built in the United Kingdom and Facebook plans to test it, probably somewhere in the United States, later this year, according to Facebook’s VP of Engineering Jay Parikh.

Facebook has discussed a plane in the past, and Re/code reported in November that it was building out a team to build drones. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has always preached that his goal with the social network is connecting everyone in the world, and part of that challenge is connecting everyone to the Internet. Facebook launched a few years back to do just that, and has been trying to provide some emerging markets with free Internet services in hopes of getting them online (and on Facebook).

Facebook estimates there are 2.5 billion people in the world that live outside of mobile data networks, and 10 percent of the population lives in areas where there is no Internet infrastructure at all. Those are the people it wants to reach.

It’s plan to do so is pretty elaborate, and quite frankly sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Facebook wants to use a system of lasers to beam data from the ground, to a network of planes in the sky, and back down to people on the ground. The planes, which will fly well above commercial airspace at somewhere between 60,000 and 90,000 feet, will be able to provide wireless access to an area with a radius as large as 50 miles, Parikh said Thursday at a press event at Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters.

The operation is still far from complete. Facebook has built just one plane, but hopes to build an entire fleet. That fleet of planes will connect with one another to form a kind of web of connectivity high in the sky. Facebook hasn’t located a specific test location within the U.S., but Yael Maguire, the engineering director in charge of Facebook’s connectivity efforts, says there are no federal regulations that will prohibit the company from flying the Aquila at the proposed altitude. “Right now, it is really new territory,” he said.

The plane, which weighs around 880 pounds, will launch from a balloon that carries it up between 70,000 and 80,000 feet, Parikh explained. Facebook is working with federal authorities like the Federal Aviation Authority and air traffic control on this, but says that once the plane launches it will be free to fly. Because the plane is solar powered, Facebook hopes to leave it up in the air for three months at a time.

 Engineers work on the propeller of Facebook’s new Aquila plane.
Engineers work on the propeller of Facebook’s new Aquila plane.

While Facebook hopes to test the plane in the United States, the eventual plan is to bring a fleet of planes to emerging markets like India and Nigeria. Parikh says that Facebook is already in talks with a handful of international governments interested in utilizing the planes. Facebook has no plans to sell planes or become a network provider, Parikh added, but plans to expand the program through partnerships instead.

Not everyone has loved Facebook’s connectivity plans in the past. The company hit some roadblocks in India earlier this year with its service when opponents argued that it violated the concept of net neutrality. Through, Facebook offers a small selection of Internet services for free (like Facebook), but as a result essentially controls which services are therefore available.

Facebook, which launched its first app almost exactly one year ago, offers the service in 17 different countries.

It’s not the only Silicon Valley company interested in providing Internet access from the sky. Google has similar plans, but is using giant balloons instead of planes to provide coverage.

Here’s a video from Facebook that shows a little bit more about how the plane was actually made.

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