BARCELONA—Facebook's "connecting the world" mantra plays out in all sorts of ways, from building an AI-backed global community to bringing remote internet access and telecommunications infrastructure to remote areas of the world by land, by sea, and even by drone. At Mobile World Congress, the social tech giant announced its latest initiative in Africa, along with updates to the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and the company's growing open-source telecommunications technology stack.
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Jay Parikh, Facebook's head of engineering and infrastructure, gave some insight into the company's latest developments on the connectivity front during a press Q&A at the show. Facebook launched a new project partnering with telecom operators Airtel Uganda and Bandwidth & Cloud Services Group (BCS) to build a 448-mile fiber to provide backhaul connectivity covering more than three million people in Uganda, and enable future cross-border connectivity to neighboring countries.
Parikh said the effort is a learning experience in working with local telcos to design, plan, and build out infrastructure for backhaul network capacity. Facebook plans to offer open access and a shared infrastructure framework to encourage greater local participation, and once completed, Parikh said the new infrastructure will reduce costs and increase capacity, improving performance and supporting upgrades to 3G and 4G in areas where operators are bandwidth-constrained.
Depending on the region, each of these projects will leverage a different combination of Facebook's next-gen connectivity stack: the Terragraph, ARIES, and Aquila wireless systems, as well as its customizable open-source OpenCellular and Voyager hardware.
"It's really hard to get connectivity upgraded for people who aren't connected. The cost of bringing the infrastructure to them is exorbitantly high, and to build it out in the conventional way takes a lot of time, money, and coordination," explained Parikh.
"We have a technology called Terragraph, which is a high-speed wireless system for urban environments. The idea is to use a low-cost radio operating at the 60GHz range to build out a high-capacity, low-cost network," said Parikh. "Aries helps extend the internet out from urban environments to communities 10 or 20 or 30km outside the city. Think of it as a very advanced base station that extends connectivity out from urban to rural areas. Then we have an aerial platform—Aquila UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle], which invests in millimeter wave technology and free space optics to bring internet access to people 50 or 70 or 100km outside the city."
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Facebook's approach with all these overlapping connectivity systems is to figure out how to package them in any given situation depending on what a region needs to connect to the internet.
On the Voyager and OpenCellular front, other TIP members are increasing capacity and extending the capabilities of Facebook's open hardware. European carrier Orange announced at MWC that it is trialing Voyager over its optical transport network, optical networking provider ADVA is deploying Voyager at scale, and San Jose, California-based service provider Cavium has bolstered OpenCellular for 4G and LTE speeds.
"OpenCellular is a white box optical transponder and routing solution for telcos to deploy a more efficient optical network and extend fiber networks out from urban environments; it's a one-size-fits-all box with an open ecosystem. We only built it for 2G so it could be deployed for basic connectivity in rural areas," said Parikh. "We contributed OpenCellular to TIP last year, and now Cavium has taken OpenCellular and adapted the stack to offer 4G and LTE."
The TIP has grown from five founding members in 2016 to 450 members today, and Parikh also announced that Facebook and UK carrier BT are launching another TIP Ecosystem Acceleration Center Program in London (there's already one in South Korea) to fund and incubate telco startups. A London group of venture capital companies has pledged to invest $170 million in the new accelerator's telecom infrastructure startups.
Finally, Parikh did comment on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explosion this past September, which also destroyed a Facebook satellite intended to bring internet access to Africa. Bringing it back to the connectivity stack, Parikh said Facebook is experimenting with both UAV and satellite-based solutions to bring internet access to the world's most isolated areas.
"We're obviously bummed about the mishap with SpaceX. We continue to look into what the options are for us, but satellites are part of our overall strategy," said Parikh. "For very rural communities, satellite communication still makes the most sense in terms of reaching people the fastest, but UAVs give you more bandwidth than satellites. The [Aquila] UAV platform and the satellites are complementary; in the most rural parts of the world, it won't necessarily be one or the other."