INSIDE A LAB at Facebook, Yael Maguire is building infrared lasers, Earth-orbiting satellites, and a fleet of flying drones powered by the light of the sun. It sounds more like the plot of the latest James Bond movie than the work of a social networking company. But Maguire’s project is a direct path to the future of Facebook—and the Internet as a whole.
Maguire oversees what Facebook calls its Connectivity Lab. With those lasers, satellites, and drones, he and his team of engineers are working to bring the Internet to all those people on Earth who don’t already have it. Think vast swaths of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The satellites and drones will beam signals down to these areas, using microwaves and maybe even those infrared lasers.
Facebook wants to “connect the unconnected,” says Maguire, pointing out that about two-thirds of the world’s population is not yet online. And this requires some new gear. “We realized there wasn’t one technology that could connect everyone,” the former MIT quantum computing researcher explains. “We needed a set of technologies.”
The project isn’t mere philanthropy. If more people are on the net, more people will use Facebook, after all, as well as the many other online services offered by the company, from Messenger to Instagram to WhatsApp. (Google is trying something similar in building Google Fiber, its ultra-high-speed wireline Internet service, and with Project Loon, which will deliver the Internet to underserved areas via high-altitude balloons.) For tech giants, extending the Internet into the skies makes good economic sense.
This doesn’t mean that Facebook will end up as an honest-to-goodness Internet service provider that competes with the likes of AT&T and Comcast. But in developing these satellites and drones, Maguire and his team can push ISPs and other companies toward a more expansive Internet. Facebook could help power the services offered by others, for example, or it could share its designs so others could build their own flying gear. Or the project could simply pressure others to expand global Internet access.
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