Yesterday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, destroying its entire payload. Part of that payload was a satellite that would have provided a crucial data link for Facebooks’ Internet.org project. Experts are still sorting through what caused the explosion and what it means for SpaceX, but it’s already clear the explosion will be a major setback for Internet.org’s ambitions in sub-saharan Africa.
In the broad view, Internet.org aims to connect the world’s poorest people to the internet — but Facebook’s project has drawn some criticism for how it approaches that goal. The most controversial example is Free Basics, which offers a limited version of the internet for free by partnering with specific apps and services. That system was criticized by many as zero-rating — a violation of the principles of net neutrality — and was ultimately banned in India after intense lobbying from Facebook.
A major setback for Internet.org in sub-saharan Africa
But the satellite destroyed this week, called Amos 6, was set to be used in an entirely different project. Amos 6 would have provided backhaul for Internet.org’s Express Wi-Fi system, which connects rural internet providers to the broader internet. Anyone connecting to an Express Wi-Fi provider will experience the same, full internet as anyone else, with no limitations or favored apps. As a result, it’s been able to operate even in countries that rejected Free Basics, including India where it launched last month.
Free Basics is still active in 23 countries across Africa and shows no signs of slowing down — but its growth has been largely independent of Express Wi-Fi. Free Basics typically focuses on areas where internet infrastructure is available, but access is too expensive for much of the population. By restricting access, Free Basics can provide more people with access to basic services, even as it runs the risk of creating a multi-tiered internet.
Express Wi-Fi tackles a different problem. Instead of focusing on areas that are already connected, Express Wi-Fi looks to build out back-end infrastructure to areas too poor and remote for a conventional telecom to justify the investment. Once the backhaul connectivity is available, local entrepreneurs take on the work of bringing it to the average consumer — but it’s only possible because of the infrastructure provided by Internet.org.
Focusing on poor, remote areas
As a result, the Express Wi-Fi project has been applauded by some of the same groups that criticized Free Basics. Access Now raised concerns about Free Basics in 2015, arguing the tiered system might "serve to create a new form of digital divide." But when I spoke to Access Now’s Peter Micek about the Express Wi-Fi project, his reaction was far more positive. "They do seem to be focusing on these programs that aim to provide much more open access," Micek said. "We’re really excited about the momentum around bringing access to areas that don’t have it."
There’s still the possibility of vertical integration in the long term — integrating Free Basics into Express Wi-Fi deployments — but given the difference between the two services’ clients, it’s not clear such an integration would make sense, and could endanger many of the independent businesses built on top of Express Wi-Fi’s infrastructure.
Express Wifi’s focus on underserved areas will make the destroyed satellite particularly difficult to replace. It’s still unclear what specific areas would have been served by the satellite — those deals would have been made once Amos 6 was safely in orbit — but the whole point was to reach remote areas with no other way to connect. With the satellite gone, those areas will likely remain cut off.
Facebook’s Connectivity Lab has a number of more ambitious plans for connecting rural areas, but none are developed enough to come to the rescue. The solar-powered router drones — known internally as Project Aquila — had their first test launch earlier this summer, but the project is ambitious and unusual enough it’s likely to take years of further testing to deploy. Another project, called ARIES, would let remote areas build cheaper, more efficient cell towers, but that’s a project that could take decades to complete. Until those are ready, Express Wi-Fi will have to rely on more conventional methods.
Facebook is still figuring out how to respond to the explosion, but the most likely path forward is another satellite, which will take plenty of money and time to deploy. It’s a surprising setback, given the vast resources at Facebook’s disposal, but it’s less surprising for those familiar with satellite launches. On average, one in every twenty launches will lose its payload, whether due to deployment problems, engine failure, or a sudden blowup like we saw this week. As routine as those launches seem, they’re still a gamble — and Facebook, Internet.org, and anyone hoping to build a business on Express Wi-Fi’s new backhaul just lost.