Facebook’s drones could bring internet to the developing world—and stick it to mobile carriers

Coming soon to a sky near you.
Coming soon to a sky near you.
Image: Titan Aerospace
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Facebook is in talks to buy a drone company called Titan Aerospace for $60 million, according to TechCrunch. The New Mexico-based start-up is is developing autonomous solar-powered aircraft that can stay aloft for up to five years at near-orbital heights, which could make them ideal for beaming internet access to remote areas.

This holds an obvious appeal for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is focused on reaching the two-thirds of humankind who are not yet online. Google is testing a similar internet access program called Project Loon that uses a network of weather balloons, which are currently aloft over the South Pacific.

Titan’s aircraft are still under development, but it hopes to launch its Solara 50 model, which can carry a payload of up to 70 pounds (31.8 kilograms) and has the same wingspan as a Boeing 787, sometime in 2014. The larger Solara 60 can carry up to 250 pounds, and is due in 2015. Flying between 60,000 and 70,000 feet (18,300 and 21,300 meters), well above commercial jet traffic, a single aircraft could provide connectivity over an 18-mile (29 kilometer) radius.

That could prove to be an enormous boon for remote areas of Africa and Asia, where Facebook’s “next billion” live. Look at all these potential WhatsApp users:

Image for article titled Facebook’s drones could bring internet to the developing world—and stick it to mobile carriers

Having a drone fleet could also give Facebook more leverage with mobile carriers as it tries to secure “zero-rate” deals in the developing world, which would allow people to use Facebook without it counting against their data plans.

Facebook contends that zero-rating its content actually encourages overall mobile phone usage and thus is profitable for carriers in the long run. While it has a number of zero-rate deals already, some carriers have recently been unreceptive to that argument. “It does not make any sense,” Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao said at a shareholder meeting last month. “There is no reason why I should give my network capacity for free.”

But what if Facebook can bypass the carriers and offer mobile data services to developing markets with a futuristic fleet of high-flying solar-powered drones? A couple of years from now, when Facebook has yet another meeting with a mobile carrier in India, Nigeria, or Indonesia to talk about a zero-rate deal, the carrier would be offered an implicit choice: Cut us a deal or we release the drones.

Facebook was not immediately available for comment.