Facebook has initiated discussions with the Indian government and local mobile operators about trialling high-altitude, solar-powered planes to deliver internet connectivity to remote areas, the Economic Times reported.

The world’s largest social network is in talks with local operators to see which ones are interested, said Robert Pepper, Facebook’s director of connectivity public policy. “There is a huge amount of interest, but it is very early stages.”

According to media reports early last month, Facebook is in discussion with several countries to trial internet connectivity provided by drones, with demonstrations potentially taking place in 2018.

In July Facebook’s Connectivity Lab completed the first successful test flight of its unmanned aircraft called Aquila in Arizona. Once finalised, Aquila will be able to beam connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimetre-wave systems to reach an area of 60 miles in diameter. The drones will stay aloft for up to 90 days.

Pepper said Aquila, which is one of Facebook’s initiatives to reduce the cost of connectivity, could be used in areas where India’s national optical fibre network doesn’t yet reach, he told the Times. He noted that when the fibre network is expanded, the drones can be moved to other unconnected locations.

Express Wi-Fi
Facebook said in August it was holding talks with a number of ISPs in India to expand its Express Wi-Fi programme, after trials in 125 rural locations in partnership with state-owned BSNL.

Aquila can’t give direct internet access to end-users, but it can provide backhaul for Express Wi-Fi, the newspaper said.

Facebook has faced a series of setbacks in India over the past year after it introduced its Free Basics zero rating service. The country’s telecoms regulator in February ruled against differential data pricing following a national debate and furious lobbying by supporters and opponents of its Free Basics service.

Free Basics, offering users free access to a range of data services, including Facebook’s social network, is part of Facebook’s internet.org initiative, which aims to bring the internet to four billion unconnected people around the world, particularly the 1.6 billion who live in remote locations.