Facebook is bulking up satellite capacity to offer cheap internet access to Africa

A new type of meeting point.
A new type of meeting point.
Image: Reuters/Youssef Boudlal
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Facebook is pushing ahead with plans to bring more internet access to sub-Saharan Africa by leasing bandwidth capacity on three satellites currently in orbit. It will be used for its subsidized Express Wi-Fi paid service, which is part of its program.

The social media giant’s has run into controversy because of its Free Basics service, which offers a pre-selected suite of websites for free, without data charges. The program has sparked controversy, because some argue it runs counter to the principles of net neutrality by promoting a limited number of websites, including Facebook, above any others.

Free Basics was stopped in its tracks in India, after activists argued the program was in conflict with net neutrality principles. In February, India’s regulators agreed with the activists, putting a stop to Free Basics’ roll-out to a market of some 1.2 billion people.

But has met little to no regulatory resistance in Africa so far, and is already available in 37 countries via a local mobile network partner in each of those territories.

The idea of the Free Basics program is to encourage more users in emerging markets to come online—usually via their phones. The hope is that as consumers get used to browsing the limited number of websites they’ll venture beyond those sites to the wider web. In its pitch to mobile operators, Facebook says: “Once people understand the internet and are engaged, we help our partners sustain these new users—over 50% of people who use Free Basics pay for data and access the broader internet within 30 days.”

The Express Wi-Fi service is a subsidized service to offer cheap internet access. For example, it costs around $1 to $3 a month for low-income and rural areas in India. Facebook is still experimenting with the service but the extra satellite capacity for Africa could signal it is putting new emphasis on the subsidized service rather than free. This latest capacity will be provided via a pact with the European satellite company SES. A Facebook spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

The cheap access reduces one of the big obstacles to internet access in developing countries by subsidizing the cost of mobile data, which can be prohibitively expensive. Also, many countries do not have widespread 4G, or even 3G, network coverage which means internet speeds are slow. To counter that, some of the websites in the program are stripped down versions. Facebook is also experimenting with other methods of providing access, including high-altitude long-endurance planes and lasers.