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