Say you're a technology company with a new $19-billion mobile-messaging toy and a hankering to bring the Internet to the developing world. What do you buy next? A drone manufacturer, apparently.
TechCrunch reports that Facebook is in talks to buy Titan Aerospace, a company that makes solar-powered drones, for $60 million. By arming drones with satellites instead of missiles, you can bring Internet access to parts of the world that don't have it. Only about 34 percent of the world is online; according to TechCrunch, Facebook is looking to Africa, where just more than 15 percent of the population is connected.
Titan drones are still in development, with a small model slated for introduction later this year and a larger one for 2015. One aircraft should be able to fly for five years without landing and provide connectivity over an 18-mile radius.
Facebook's drone fleet would compete with Google's Project Loon initiative, which is designed to spread Internet access to rural areas via a network of balloons. Google is currently testing balloons, which only fly for 100 days. The program has faced criticism, most notably from Bill Gates, who questioned whether connectivity was the most pressing problem in low-income countries.
It's likely the real battle won't actually be drones versus balloons, but Facebook versus mobile carriers. Expanding global Internet access could be very profitable for Facebook, especially after its purchase of WhatsApp, a free social-messaging app with 450 million users. Such apps reduced global texting revenue to phone providers by more than $32 billion in 2013. WhatsApp is popular among youth in the developing world, including in India, Brazil and Mexico.
Facebook has made efforts to secure zero-rate deals for users in developing countries, which would give them mobile access to Facebook without being charged for data usage. But, as Quartz asks, what if Facebook could bypass carriers and offer mobile data services directly to users? Bring on the drones.
(Kirsten Salyer is social media editor for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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