Facebook hired the co-founders of Endaga, a US-based start-up that enables “anyone to build their own independent, profitable cellular networks, even in the most remote, sparsely populated places on earth”.
Facebook also announced a partnership with satellite operator Eutelsat Communications for an initiative that aims to improve connectivity for African users.
Both moves relate to its internet.org programme, which has set itself the ambitious target of providing “free, basic” internet access to everyone on the planet.
The company has created a cellular relay station called CCN1 that can be installed in an elevated location, such as a pole or tree, and then sold to local people who can use it to build a business.
CCN1 provides voice, SMS, and data service to standard GSM phones. Endaga “automatically sets up the network and keeps it running.”
The system can cover a whole village, including “hundreds of subscribers in a 10km radius,” the company claims.
Endaga automatically configures everything, from phone numbers to radio frequency management, and its package includes billing and analytics software, including a sales dashboard.
“In the last five years, the cost of cellular equipment has plummeted from $100,000 to about $10,000 – making it within reach for local entrepreneurs to run their own networks. What’s hard nowadays isn’t buying the hardware, but managing and operating in remote areas,” the company explained on its website.
In a blog post, it announced that “over the past year, our team has worked hard to empower communities, and we believe Facebook’s mission to connect the world aligns perfectly with this vision. We’re excited to continue finding ways to connect people as we work with the amazing team at Facebook.”
“As part of this, members of our team will be joining Facebook and we will wind down our business operations”, the post added.
According to past media reports, the CCN1 box is “technically illegal” because the company does not hold spectrum licences for the networks it sets up.
However, CEO Kurtis Heimerl defended Endaga’s approach. He told Fast Company “as a research group and an individual, I’m not a cross-the-T’s and dot-the-I’s kind of person. In these areas we ducked under the bureaucracy. We just didn’t do the friction. If you really want to be innovative, you’re going to have to push on these regulations. Our network is demonstration of that.”
In December, Endaga completed a $1.2 million round of seed funding to improve usability of its software.
“The idea for Endaga came out of the TIER research group at UC Berkeley. Before there was internet.org and Google Loon, there was TIER – a foundational organisation in the field of Information and Communication Technology and Development,” the company said at the time in a blog post.
Taking the satellite route
Meanwhile under a multi-year agreement with satellite operator Spacecom, Eutelsat and Facebook will utilise the entire Ka-band broadband payload on the future AMOS-6 satellite and build a system comprising satellite capacity, gateways and terminals. The capacity is scheduled to become available in the second half of 2016.
Eutelsat and Facebook will each deploy services designed to meet demand for connectivity from users in Africa beyond the range of fixed and mobile terrestrial networks. The capacity will enable Eutelsat to step up its broadband activity in Sub-Saharan Africa that started with Ku-band satellites serving business users.
Eutelsat is establishing a new company based in London that will steer its African broadband business. The company will be led by Laurent Grimaldi, founder and former CEO of Tiscali International Network, and will focus on serving premium consumer and professional segments.
Eutelsat and Facebook will be “equipped to pursue their ambition to accelerate data connectivity for the many users deprived of the economic and social benefits of the Internet”, the former said in a statement.
“Facebook’s mission is to connect the world and we believe that satellites will play an important role in addressing the significant barriers that exist in connecting the people of Africa,” said Chris Daniels, VP of internet.org.
In July, on internet.org’s first anniversary, Facebook said it had worked closely with “more than a dozen” operators across 17 countries on internet.org which is available to more than a billion people.
However, according to Nathan Eagle, founder of a rival application designed to deliver free internet to emerging markets, Facebook’s internet.org “will have to change its model to be scalable”.
“Ultimately, they’ll need to take a gamble and evolve their model,” he told Mobile World Live recently. “They have a much larger team and much larger resources than us so they can afford to do that,” he said.
Facebook’s ‘walled garden’ approach has come under fire in some countries, with many global digital rights groups arguing the scheme goes against net neutrality as it only provides a limited number of online services.