Facebook in talks with Indian telcos, government to beam internet via Aquila drone: Report

Facebook is said to have begun initial talks to bring high-speed broadband to Indian users via its solar-powered Aquila planes.

Facebook Aquila

Parallel to its social networking platform, Facebook has lately been investing a lot of time and resources in its quest to bring mobile internet access to remote areas. One of its project is Aquila, which aims to use solar-powered planes to provide low-cost internet access. After successfully testing Aquila back in July, Facebook is now ready to roll out its service to the world. Starting with India, a report suggests that Facebook has started initial talks with Indian telecom companies and the government for introducing a potential pilot program in the country.

An Economic Times report states that Facebook has already begun exploring tie ups with telecom companies for its Express Wi-Fi project to provide broadband services in rural parts, Robert Pepper, Facebook’s Connectivity Public Policy Director told the publication. “Having fibre-like speeds in places without fibre and making it available to anybody is the reason why there’s so much interest in Aquila. We have begun discussions with telecom operators to see which ones might be interested,” Pepper said. “There is a huge amount of interest, but it is very early stages.”

Aquila, is a solar-powered airplane with a wingspan of 141 feet, which is wider than a Boeing 737. Each Aquila plane can remain in the air for up to 90 days at a time, beaming internet signals to people within a 96-km diameter. ALSO READ: Facebook’s solar-powered plane Aquila makes first full-scale test flight

To understand how the Project Aquila works, Facebook would essentially tie up with existing telecom companies in a country, that lack resources or enough demands to provide mobile internet access in an area. With the tie up, these companies will be able to use Aquila as a platform to deliver mobile broadband to these rural or secluded areas. And eventually when the company builds enough audience in those areas to build its own infrastructure, the Aquila plane could move to another location which needs internet access.

Pepper told the publication that in India, Aquils could be used in areas where the national optical fibre network (NOFN), now Bharat Net, is unable to reach yet. “Whenever NOFN comes to those places, you can move Aquila to some other place. It’s not any cost. It’s part of the design. If it’s successful over time you would no longer need it because it creates demand which will be enough to bring the fibre,” he said.

Additionally, since Aquila is effectively a platform, it cannot be used to provide internet directly to the end users. For India, Facebook also introduced the Express Wi-Fi service recently. With the Express Wi-Fi service, Facebook dons the role of an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The company tied up with state-run BSNL to buy bandwidth worth Rs 10 crore for three years. Facebook aims to provide internet via Wi-Fi hotspots with speeds around 2Mbps in about 125 rural areas in the country. ALSO READ: 9 ways Facebook customized itself for India

Other than that, in an effort to adapt to India’s slower internet ecosystem, Facebook conducted “2G Tuesday” in the country, wherein its team will switch to slower 2G network every Tuesdays of the week. The experience is said to have helped Facebook better learn about Indian users’ usage patterns, and challenges they grapple with. The move also helped Facebook to come up with products that are optimized for such slower networks. One of the most successful such products is Facebook Lite.

The Lite app is basically a stripped down version of the main Facebook application, and is optimized for slower networks. It is less than 1MB in size, and retains core features of Facebook like sharing status, notifications and messaging. The app has been optimized for the low-end Android smartphones, which are in majority in the Indian market.

Back in March this year, Facebook had announced that the Facebook Lite for Android app had gone past 100 million monthly active users and 69 million daily active users, making it the fastest growing Facebook app.

  • Published Date: November 8, 2016 4:30 PM IST