Mark Zuckerberg is putting together a lab where a team of Facebook engineers will build flying drones, satellites, and infrared lasers capable of beaming internet connections to people down here on earth.
Revealed this afternoon by the Facebook CEO and founder, it’s known as the Facebook Connectivity Lab. According to Zuckerberg, the lab’s engineering staff already spans “many of the world’s leading experts in aerospace and communications technology,” including researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA’s Ames Research Center, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. And the company is now adding engineers from a British company called Ascenta, an outfit that helped create the world’s longest solar-powered unmanned aircraft.
All this may seem like a stretch for a social networking company. But it’s a necessary part of Zuckerberg’s efforts to bring the net to the vast parts of the world that still don’t have it — an effort known as Internet.org that makes an awful lot of sense for a company whose continued expansion depends on the continued expansion of the net. And though the general public may not realize it, Facebook has a long history with building new hardware that can advance its cause. The company declined to comment on the lab, but it confirms that the lab will be run by Yael Maguire, the former MIT Media Lab researcher who played a big role in the Open Compute Project, Facebook’s effort to build a more efficient breed of computer servers and data centers for driving its web and mobile services.
Hinted at in earlier press reports, Facebook’s flying-internet efforts mirror a similar project that’s underway at Google. Known as Project Loon, it seeks to provide internet access to the hinterlands through high-altitude balloons. Like Facebook, Google stands to benefit in big ways if the net expands. The original services built by these two web giants are now used by enormous swaths of the online population, and eventually, the companies must push into an entirely new audience. As public companies, they’re under enormous pressure to continue the growth of their businesses — in perpetuity. In addition to Loon, Google is looking to expand the reach of high-speed internet landlines through a service called Google Fiber.
According to post on the website by Internet.org — a consortium that also includes such tech outfits as Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia, and Qualcomm — the new Facebook lab is exploring the possibility of using solar-powered high-altitude planes to provide internet access in suburban areas. These could “stay aloft for months, be quickly deployed and deliver reliable internet connections,” the site says. Then, for more remote areas, the lab is looking towards low-orbiting satellites. In both cases, it aims to beam internet access to the people using what’s called free-space optical communication, or FSO. Basically, this is a way of transmitting data through infrared lasers.
Facebook’s announcement comes two days after the company acquired a startup called Oculus, saying it would use the startup’s gaming headset as a way of moving its social network into the world of virtual reality. Compared to that, the Connectivity Lab is a rather straightforward business move. On Tuesday, while discussing the Oculus buy, Zuckerberg painted both projects as platforms that represent not the near future of Facebook, but the distant future.