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Is Facebook planning to use drones to connect Africa?

Facebook might soon be providing internet access to rural parts of Africa through high-altitude drones.

Rumours last week emerged that Facebook is in talks to buy Titan Aerospace, a developer of solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles. According to US-based technology blog TechCrunch, Facebook plans to use these drones to beam internet to places in the world currently without connectivity, especially parts of Africa.

Neither Facebook nor Titan responded to How we made it in Africa’s requests for comment.

Titan’s aircraft stay in the air for five years without having to refuel or land. These “atmospheric satellites” can apparently do most things a normal satellite can do, but are less expensive.

Facebook is one of the founding companies of Internet.org, an organisation that aims to make affordable basic internet services available to everyone in the world. According to McKinsey, only 16% of Africa’s population is currently online.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote a paper in which he discusses various ways aerial and space-based platforms can connect the world.

“To connect everyone in the world, we also need to invent new technologies that can solve some of the physical barriers to connectivity. That’s why Facebook is investing in building technologies to deliver new types of connectivity on the ground, in the air and in space,” wrote Zuckerberg.

He noted that for medium density areas, “unmanned aerial vehicles can provide a novel and efficient method of access. High altitude solar-powered aircraft can be quickly deployed and have long endurance.”

Innovative ways to connect the world

Facebook is not the only tech giant introducing novel ways to bring internet to previously unconnected areas. Google’s Project Loon is a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in remote areas. People can connect to the balloon network using a special internet antenna attached to their building. The signal bounces from this antenna up to the balloon network, and then down to the global internet on earth.

Microsoft last year also announced its “white spaces” project to deliver internet in rural Kenya through the unused channels of the wireless spectrum in the frequency bands that are commonly used for television.

Facebook’s growth in Africa

There is a notable relationship between data penetration and Facebook users in Africa, which might be one of the reasons the social media network is keen on getting the continent connected.

“There is a strong correlation between data penetration and Facebook penetration. So I’m not saying anything new if I say that countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Kenya are some of our largest markets in Africa. Growth will come where we are able to deliver the highest data penetration and in sub-Saharan Africa it’s definitely through mobile. We can achieve this in many different ways,” Facebook’s growth manager for Africa, Nicola D’Elia, told How we made it in Africa at a conference last year.

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