Facebook may have ended its secretive internet-drone project — but that doesn’t mean its attempts to build experimental communications hardware are over.
Filings seen by Business Insider show that the California social network has been granted permission by the Federal Communications Commission to build a secretive, previously unreported “hardware prototype testing facility” in the New Mexico desert to test long-range wireless-communications technology.
Back in June, Facebook announced that it was ending its efforts to build giant, autonomous drones that could beam wireless internet down to the developing world. The closure of the Aquila project, which had been championed by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, came after a Business Insider investigation into upheaval and executive departures within the unit.
The company said that the closure didn’t mean Facebook was giving up on developing communications technology. “While our focus in HAPS [high-altitude platform stations] connectivity has shifted, we remain as committed as ever to addressing the three main barriers to connectivity: availability, affordability, and awareness,” Yael Maguire, Facebook’s vice president of engineering for its connectivity efforts, wrote at the time.
Facebook’s connectivity efforts are one of its most-ambitious and far-out projects and could prove crucial to the company’s expansion in years to come. Facebook’s core 2.27 billion-member social network has hit saturation point or even gone into decline in established markets like the US and Europe, and it may require physically connecting people in emerging markets to the internet for the first time ever to sustain the company’s historically meteoric growth.
In August, Facebook reorganized its connectivity efforts, bringing them all under one corporate umbrella — aptly named Facebook Connectivity. It hired an executive from wireless firm Ruckus Networks, Dan Rabinovitsj, to lead the program. His LinkedIn job description: “Let’s get the next billion people on the internet!”
The new FCC filings indicate that Facebook, via subsidiary FCL Tech, is continuing to actively build and test communications technology to this end, despite its earlier setbacks.
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Details on the tests themselves are sparse.
The filing describes an application for testing LTE (Long Term Evolution, a wireless-communications standard) equipment, and says it will involve a mix of 15 different hardware devices from confidential manufacturers. It says, “This LTE-based connectivity project requires a hardware prototype testing facility to assess key risks associated with LTE system connectivity and link budget verification.”
It indicates the tests are for equipment with a range of up to 50 kilometers, while the height of the antennas suggest the equipment will be at ground level or close to it, rather than aerial, consulting wireless engineer Steven Crowley told Business Insider.
“First I note that they are specifying fixed operation (no mobile). That is the ‘FX’ designation. So, it appears to be a point-to-point or point-to-multipoint network. What are going to be the points in any fixed network? Well, homes or businesses, or base stations that could connect with mobiles,” Crowley wrote.
“They say they’re testing equipment and I am afraid I cannot add much to that. ‘Link budget verification’ is to be tested over fairly long distances (50 km) so they may be testing the limits of the equipment to verify over what distance it can operate, or how low a power can be used at shorter distances.”
FCL Tech made a similar application in February, prior to the announcement of the drone project’s closure. The company’s most recent application was approved in October and is for a six month period, running through to the start of April 2019.
It is based at or near Truth or Consequences, a city in New Mexico that is also the site of Spaceport America, a facility aiming to be a port for future spaceflight with which Facebook once held a lease and had discussions about building a drone hanger, before the project fell apart.
In an email, Facebook spokesperson Liz Sweeney declined to provide more detail about the New Mexico tests.
“While we have nothing to share about specific projects at this time, we believe that new wireless technologies will be an important enabler of network infrastructure to help extend connectivity to areas that lack mobile broadband coverage,” she wrote.