Drones, Satellites, and the Battle for Global Interconnectivity: Facebook v. SpaceX ?

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As commercial use of drones has made large gains in popularity, companies like Facebook, Inc. and SpaceX are turning their attention to the use of drones and other technologies to create a truly global online community. Business Insider reported on November 17, 2016 that SpaceX applied with the Federal Communications Commission to launch 4,425 satellites in order to increase broadband services around the globe.

In 2013, Facebook launched a global partnership to bring internet to parts of the world without access to basic internet services.  The following year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on his Facebook page the creation of the Connectivity Lab at Facebook, a team of experts dedicated to finding new ways to connect the entire world. The focus of the Connectivity Lab serves to invent new technology to assist in providing internet access to hard-to-reach parts of the globe. In June of 2016, just over 2 years since the initial Connectivity Lab announcement, Facebook began flight tests of its drone, “Aquila”, to serve this purpose.

The Connectivity Lab’s drone program aims to fly drones at altitudes of 60,000 feet in remote areas of the world to provide bandwidth to countries still struggling with connectivity and broadcast internet content.  On October 3, 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had begun speaking with countries to run trials of the Connectivity Lab’s drone program. Hoping to commence demonstrations and trials by 2018 in countries with little to no internet access, Facebook has begun to negotiate the details.  However, it still may face several regulatory hurdles. To begin with, Facebook must gain approval from some national governments to fly drones in their airspace. Facebook may also need to seek approval for use of the applicable radio spectrum to broadcast its signals. Further, to the extent that flights will cross international borders, Facebook will need to have a sound legal relationships that permit such flight paths.  For, according to many drone experts, the global community remains years away from any agreement on drone flights over international borders.

Mudd Law monitors developments in drone law.  In addition to reporting on domestic drone developments (e.g. discussions on state and local laws regarding both commercial and recreational use of drones), we will continue to monitor the changing landscape of drone technology and international law as drones become an integral part of connecting the global community.

If you need or would like to speak to a drone lawyer, please contact one of our attorneys. Feel free to call us at 773-588-5410, schedule a consult, or email us at drones@muddlaw.com.

Editorial Note:  Where possible, Mudd Law provides its law clerks with the opportunity to write and comment upon issues relevant to the firm and its practice.  We are pleased to have Molly Kordas contribute this article.