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Flyin' Facebook: Now Zuckerberg Eyes Drones?

Dan Jones

Facebook's current acquisition plays could position the company as a major communications player for the next decade. The social networking giant, which has just acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion -- and could potentially pop for a carrier -- is now reportedly in talks to buy a satellite-cum-drone manufacturer. (See Facebook to Acquire WhatsApp for $16B and Could Tata Be Facebook's Next M&A Target?)

Facebook is said to be in talks to buy Titan Aerospace for $60 million, according to TechCrunch. Titan Aerospace makes massive near-orbit solar drones, also known as an "atmospheric satellite," that it says can fly for five years without landing.

Communications services -- from voice and data networks to global positioning services -- are a big part of what Titan Aerospace believes its drone platform offers. "Imagine reaching vast new markets," it boasts on its website.

Clearly, this is an entirely different kettle of drone than the tiny futuristic delivery vehicles that Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) was taunting the media and blogosphere with in December through its "Prime Air" project. It is much more akin to Google's "Project Loon" concept, using balloons to provide connectivity from the sky in hard-to-network areas. (See Amazon Wants Delivery Drones and Broadband: It's All Hot Air for Google.)

I've seen people on -- what else? -- Facebook posting about how this move could be "SkyNET" for real. SkyNET, you'll remember, is the fictional defense network from the Terminator movies that becomes self-aware and decides that the human race is a threat.

If it even comes to pass, Facebook's Titan Aerospace move looks to be much less exciting than that dystopian vision. Most of Facebook's recent buys have been aimed at expanding its customer base, which in turn helps to drive its Internet ad revenue. A communications drone network would be a long-term -- and definitely risky -- move to add yet more customers.

In fact, these drones probably wouldn't be parked in the skies above Manhattan, Shanghai, or London. Rather they would likely be aimed at providing a good enough broadband connection over areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the globe where it is hard to deploy fiber or power traditional cell sites.

Facebook, like Google, is assuming that the next major wave of Internet users will come from the so-called developing world and use mobile as their primary -- or only -- means of connection to the Internet. Therefore, the company appears to be considering some fairly audacious ways of speeding up network penetration to those parts of the world, hence the potential drone buy.

Could it work? Hard to say. Google has had ambitions about low-orbit communications balloons for years now with very little to show for it so far. (See Google's Balloon Dreams.)

There's no question, however, that communications drones will be some part of our wireless future. It is just a question of how far off that future is. The Federal Aviation Administration in the US, for instance, admitted in February that it won't meet its Fall 2015 deadline for having commercial drones falling in American airspace. (See Here Come the WiFi Drones.)

Long term, however, the potential Facebook move -- or some future alternative connectivity scheme like it -- could further blur the lines between traditional telcos and the over-the-top players looking for the big mobile advertising bucks. (See MWC14: What Are Telcos For?)

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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Susan Fourtané
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Blogger
3/16/2014 | 1:24:37 PM
Re: Maybe a deal with Nokia is next?

That's horrible! :( Now I'm going to have nightmares. Maybe I start hiding myself in the closet. 

Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
3/14/2014 | 5:17:07 PM
Re: Maybe a deal with Nokia is next?
My theory on what's going on here: Facebook wants to write those annoying Candy Crush game updates on bricks, and use drones to drop them on your house. 
User Rank: Blogger
3/9/2014 | 1:25:17 PM
OCP acquisitions?
As the Open Compute Project advances into networking, I'm thinking Facebook could buy one or more of their OCP pals--like Big Switch Networks or similar company?
Susan Fourtané
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Blogger
3/9/2014 | 9:00:34 AM
Maybe a deal with Nokia is next?
"Rather they would likely be aimed at providing a good enough broadband connection over areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the globe where it is hard to deploy fiber or power traditional cell sites."

This sounds pretty much like Nokia has been doing for some time now in the developing countries "connecting the next million to the Internet" through its affordable mobile devices. 

User Rank: Light Beer
3/8/2014 | 6:11:10 PM
Re: Gamble on the future
Interesting that FB is getting their hands into other technologies. You can't stay stagnant in the technology world and FB clearly isn't doing that.
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
3/7/2014 | 5:57:42 PM
Re: Gamble on the future
That's the nature of investment. Some of your investments fail. But Facebook seems to have more than its share of failures.
User Rank: Blogger
3/7/2014 | 12:13:23 PM
Re: Good for telcos
Yeah I imagine they'd partner up if any of this actually comes to pass, which is obviously still an "if"
User Rank: Blogger
3/7/2014 | 12:11:36 PM
Re: Captain, We're Losing Power
Supposedly solar. I'm checking with them on stats.
Jessie Morrow
Jessie Morrow,
User Rank: Lightning
3/7/2014 | 12:00:31 PM
Captain, We're Losing Power
I goto Solara's site and see these drones are covered with solar cells, so is this where all their power comes from? For five years no less, no hyperbole?
R Clark
R Clark,
User Rank: Blogger
3/6/2014 | 9:03:04 PM
Good for telcos
I think more good news than bad for telcos. If these technologies work, Facebook and Google will need partners in those under-served region to do all the things that telcos do. Plus some countries will insist on local control of the operator.
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