Will Facebook Become an ISP?

Precisely what Facebook plans to do with drones is hard to tell, as it once was hard to tell what Google might do in the Internet access area.

But there were more hints, in Google’s case, as Google had invested in a number of Internet service provider initiatives, such as metropolitan Wi-Fi, or airport Wi-Fi, or promises to bid on 4G spectrum (to put a floor under the bidding prices) to actual investments in spectrum (Clearwire).

Up to this point, Facebook has introduced “zero rating” programs in a couple of countries, allowing people to use Facebook without consuming any of their mobile data allotment.

“In just a few months, we helped double the number of people using mobile data on Globe’s network and grew their subscribers by 25 percent,” said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO. “In Paraguay, by working with TIGO we were able to grow the number of people using the internet by 50 percent over the course of the partnership and increase daily data usage by more than 50 percent.”

Facebook promises other such partnerships will be launched. But not only partnerships, perhaps. “But partnerships are only part of the solution,” Zuckerberg says. To be sure, that is the sort of statement easy to take out of context.

In context, Zuckerberg only is saying Facebook will work to develop new Internet access methods. “To connect everyone in the world, we also need to invent new technologies that can solve some of the physical barriers to connectivity,” said Zuckerberg.

That only suggests Facebook will look to create new forms of access, not necessarily that Facebook will become the access provider.

Already, Facebook says it is working on mesh networks for cities, drones for medium-density areas and satellites for low-density areas. Since Facebook acknowledge that prices are mostly the issue in 80 percent to 90 percent of cases, including all urban areas, one might ask why Facebook is working urban area coverage at all.

In medium-density areas, where drones might be used, Facebook could in principle simply license or promote such technology to other ISPs. But what if other ISPs refuse? What if other ISPs move too slowly?

As for satellite access, Facebook notes that it is expensive to launch and use satellites, but getting cheaper. Facebook says it is looking at both low earth orbit and geostationary approaches, with free space optics.

“One major advantage of aerial connectivity, however, is that deployment to people’s homes is
relatively simple,” says Zuckerberg. “Relatively cheap devices already exist that can receive signals from the sky and broadcast Wi-Fi to mobile phones.”

Facebook might at the moment prefer only to push the Internet access process faster by commercializing new access networks. But the act of creation can change the realm of possibility. What might not have been viewed as desirable, initially, might look quite reasonable, in the end.

And, in any case, what actor would want to broadcast its intentions in such a matter? What advantage would Google have gained had it said “we are going to become Internet service providers?

Sure, it always is possible Facebook will create some new access platforms, and then simply encourage others to use them. But that seems only one of a few likely scenarios. And one of those scenarios includes Facebook becoming a supplier of end user Internet access.
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