SpaceX explosion sets back Facebook's Africa connectivity plans

SAN FRANCISCO — The fiery explosion of the SpaceX rocket at Cape Canaveral this week reverberated in Silicon Valley and Africa, where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was promoting the Internet connectivity the satellite on board aimed to deliver.

The satellite, the first from Facebook's Internet.org initiative, was destroyed when the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad two days before its scheduled launch. The loss — Facebook had leased some of the satellite’s capacity — will delay the rollout of a key component of Facebook's ambitious plan to connect every person on the planet to the Internet.

"As I'm here in Africa, I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent," Zuckerberg wrote during his Africa visit that was timed to coincide with the satellite's launch. On Friday, Zuckerberg met with Nigeria's president Muhammadu Buhari. He also visited Kenya.

In October, Facebook announced it had teamed with French satellite company Eutelsat to launch the AMOS-6 satellite in a deal valued at $95 million.

Zuckerberg pointed to other efforts in the works to spread Internet connectivity around the globe, such as a fleet of Facebook-built drones. "Fortunately, we have developed other technologies like Aquila that will connect people as well," he wrote. "We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided."

Yet the satellite's destruction represents just the latest setback for Internet.org, Zuckerberg's signature project to bring connectivity to remote places around the world that do not have it.

In Internet.org, Zuckerberg sees the possibility of getting billions more people online, serving Facebook's business interests and humanity and forming the basis for the legacy for which he hopes to be remembered.

"He's so determined, this is a matter of personal obsession with him," says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World.

That obsession was on international display at a private audience at the Vatican last week during which Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan presented Pope Francis with a model of his company's solar-powered drone designed to beat Internet connectivity to less developed parts of the world.

Internet.org is pushing forward on multiple fronts. It has struck deals with phone carriers to make select web services including Facebook available for free on mobile devices through a program called Free Basics. And its Connectivity Lab is experimenting with new ways to deliver Internet access such as the Facebook-built drones.

Not everyone is so eager to have Facebook be the purveyor of the world's Internet connectivity, with some complaining that Facebook wants too much control over what people can access on the Internet. Last February, with local opposition mounting, India's telecom authority banned Free Basics.

That setback did not deter Zuckerberg's commitment, backed by the heaping coffers of one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful companies, says Kirkpatrick. And Kirkpatrick does not expect the loss of a satellite to phase Facebook.

"One of the things that has impressed me that in the wake of the controversies in India over Free Basics, they really didn't let that set them back very far," he says. "The conviction about getting Internet access to everyone on the planet is serious enough at Facebook and broadly held enough within the company that they take setbacks as simply an opportunity to rethink and restart. And I would say the same thing is almost certainly going to happen here."

In a statement, Facebook underscored that point.

"We are disappointed by the loss but remain committed to our mission of connecting people to the internet around the world," the company said.

Analysts shrugged off the satellite's loss, saying it's unlikely to have a "material" impact on Internet.org.

"The reality is that all the various Internet.org efforts and Free Basics put together account for a tiny proportion of Facebook's business. Certainly, they're intended to help broaden the addressable market for Facebook, but so far that's had a very limited impact on user numbers or anything else," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst with Jackdaw Research.

"Given how long the lead times are on rocket launches, I'm guessing this will set back Facebook’s satellite initiative by quite some time, but that's not going to have a material impact on Facebook's business, even if it's disappointing from an Internet.org perspective."

Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn @jguynn


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