Facebook may soon join SpaceX and OneWeb in the rush to deliver Internet from orbit.
A filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week revealed details of a multi-million dollar experimental satellite from a stealthy company called PointView Tech LLC. The satellite, named Athena, will deliver data 10 times faster than SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellites, the first of which launched in February.
However, PointView appears to exist only on paper. In fact, the tiny company seems to be a new subsidiary of Facebook, formed last year to keep secret the social media giant’s plans to storm space.
Many technology companies believe the future of the Internet is orbital. Around half the people on the planet lack a broadband Internet connection, particularly those who live in rural areas and developing nations. SpaceX aims to put nearly 12,000 Starlinks into low Earth orbit (LEO), to deliver gigabit-speed Internet to most of the Earth’s surface. Rival OneWeb, funded by Japan’s SoftBank, chipmaker Qualcomm, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, plans similar global coverage using perhaps 2,500 LEO satellites.
In early 2019, PointView’s Athena will also head out to LEO, on an Arianespace Vega rocket. Athena is about the same size and weight (150 kg) as SpaceX and OneWeb’s satellites, but Athena will use high-frequency millimeter-wave radio signals that promise much faster data rates. The company estimates its E-band system will deliver up to 10 gigabits per second. “PointView is aiming to understand whether a… system using E-band spectrum can be used for the provision of fixed and mobile broadband access in unserved and underserved areas,” it wrote in the FCC application.
Space companies based in the United States must get permission from the FCC before launching, and often start building satellites and ground stations long before they file their paperwork. “PointView has begun construction of the proposed satellite facilities at its own risk,” says its application. “It notified the Commission… in writing that it planned to begin construction at its own risk in July 2016.”
However, according to records in Delaware, the company was only incorporated there in April 2017. PointView has filed no annual reports and has no named directors or shareholders. Instead, a paper trail leads to Facebook in California.
To start, PointView Tech has the same corporate agent in Delaware as other Facebook subsidiaries, including FCL Tech Inc., the company that managed its early connectivity tests. PointView’s application to the FCC was also filed by the same Washington, D.C. law firm—and even the same lawyer—that wrote previous Facebook FCC applications. (The law firm did not respond to requests for comment).