Wesley Wong, Facebook’s head of connectivity partnerships and business development

SINGAPORE — Facebook told the satellite sector not to expect the social media giant to play the role of a wealthy global customer but that it will partner with satellite fleet operators trying to extend connectivity to unserved areas.

In the past three months, Facebook as established rural-Wi-Fi partnerships with Spain’s Hispasat fleet operator in Brazil, Hughes Network Systems in Brazil and Mexico, and Viasat Inc. in Mexico.

The arrangements include Facebook co-investment in the deployment of Facebook Express Wi-Fi hotspots that then connect to its partners’ satellites to provide a prepaid internet service to the immediate neighborhood.

It’s the kind of slow-going, village by village effort whose economics will take time to assess. But already Viasat has suggested that rural Wi-Fi could be more profitable than fixed consumer broadband: http://bit.ly/2XRIr82

Wesley Wong, head of connectivity, partnership & business development at Facebook, said the company is looking for other satellite partners to extend the effort in other regions.

“The model we have been exploring with these companies is satellite-enabled community Wi-Fi hotspots. And we’re seeing a lot of great traction form these companies getting out there. In the next 6-12 months, we’d like to see more organizations out here willing to take that step outside their comfort zone of B2B, to B2B2C. That’s what we’re looking for.

“These [unconnected] people have the means of paying for this kind activity.”

Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon have had an on-again, off-again involvement with the satellite sector, with rumors of impending large investments that never occur in addition to small investments in atmospheric platforms to deliver regional.

Facebook and Paris-based fleet operator Eutelsat together purchased a share of the Amos-6 satellite owned by Spacecom of Israel to deploy connectivity in Africa. That agreement collapsed in the wake of the satellite’s September 2016 explosion during preparations for launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Eutelsat has doubled down on Africa with its own, dedicated satellite to launch later this year, but Facebook is no longer a part of the program.

Earlier this year, Amazon took the plunge, making regulatory filings for a thousand-plus satellite constellation in low Earth orbit, called Project Kuiper, to deliver broadband worldwide to unserved and underserved populations: http://bit.ly/2ZhzuoG

The Amazon decision spurred speculation that an Amazon peer like Facebook, Apple or Google might make a similar move.

Wong’s remarks here June 17 at the Satellite Industry Forum organized by the Asia Video Industry Assn. (Avia), suggest that this kind of investment is not an immediate Facebook priority.

A Facebook Express Wi-Fi installation in Kenya. Credit: Facebook

“In the past Facebook put out some effort that made us look like a potential customer, and then a potential competitor” to satellite operators, Wong said. “We have since learned in the last few years that there are some great organizations doing some amazing things here. We’re trying to figure out which one of hose align with our vision and what we can do to help to get what they’re doing to achieve what we want to get done.

“We’re not there to be a competitor, and we’re certainly not there to be customer. In the past we’ve been viewed as potentially a large customer. It’s not necessarily in Facebook’s DNA to buy a bunch of capacity,” Wong said.

Wong said the commercial satellite sector has not made enough of a name for itself in the unconnected world, making it more difficult to make inroads in markets that should welcoming satellite connectivity.

He credited SpaceX as an example of a company that has helped make space appealing far beyond the space industry.

In remarks that had some in the audience gritting their teeth, Wong said the terrestrial wireless sector’s industry associations do a much better job a promoting their industries to developing markets.

GSMA serves industries that serve the end consumer,” he said of the lead terrestrial-wireless lobbying group, a regular adversary of the space sector in regulatory meetings on radio spectrum.

“That’s why they everybody knows them, that’s why they have a lot of power and that’s why the regulators care about them. The space industry has been comfortable supplying goods to businesses that give us great margins and keep us comfortable.

“But to take that last mile and get to the end consumer? That’s a lot of hard work. But once you’ve done that…. Some of the partnerships we have signed in the last three to six months have been with partners willing to take that leap, to expand the market into customers that some of the big global operators aren’t prepared to address. Once that’s done I think that raises the space industry’s profile to start making a difference in other peoples’ lives.”

“I work for a company that has obviously significantly high recognition among consumers and we are trying to figure out a way to work with companies that are making changes today so that they can reach the end user.

“We are focused on partner success. Here we’re in a room full of companies primarily from the Asia-Pacific but globally that can deliver connectivity anywhere in the world. How do we leverage that and work with these companies to ensure that they are successful?”