Facebook Unveils Plans to Bring Internet to Both Cities and Rural Areas

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Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., speaks during the Facebook F8 Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. Zuckerberg plans to unveil tools that let application makers reach the social network's audience while helping the company boost revenue. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook revealed more details about its ambitious plans to bring the Internet to the rural world as well as metropolitan cities.

Speaking at Facebook’s annual coder conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, the company’s vice president of infrastructure engineering, Jay Parikh, outlined several new research projects from Facebook’s Connectivity Lab.

The Connectivity Lab is an in-house Facebook research unit supporting the social network’s Internet.org initiative meant to bring the Internet to places where Internet connectivity is scant.

The first initiative he detailed, named Project Aries, is a modified version of the types of cellular towers and base stations one might see while driving on the freeway. Parikh explained that in traditional radio communications, these stations and towers typically use one antennae in which “the amount of radio signal gets split up among everyone.”

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With so many people hogging up the radio signal, the cell tower can become congested, which may cause you to “want to take your phone and chuck it out of your car,” Parikh quipped. To cut down on the congestion, the Facebook prototype system uses a type of advanced wireless technology called Massive MIMO, making it possible to cram more antennas into a radio station to help deliver signals.

In a Facebook blog post on Project Aries, Facebook noted this form of wireless technology has matured to the point that “many industrial base-station and device manufacturers worldwide” are exploring its use as well.

Prototype of Project Aries

The proof-of-concept project contains 96 antennas and custom software that Parikh said can deliver a very high rate of what’s known as spectral efficiency, which is used to measure the most amount of data that can be transmitted with the least amount of errors.

Parikh did not say where Facebook plans to test this system, but he believes that the project will help bring next-generation 5G wireless communications to rural areas.

The second project Parikh detailed, dubbed Terragraph, is a wireless system designed to blanket cities with Internet connectivity. Through so-called distribution nodes (resembling small, rectangular boxes) that can be attached to lamp posts and other pieces of city infrastructure, a Wi-Fi or cellular network can be maintained and offer the possibility to “replace fiber in these dense urban environments.”

To keep the costs of these devices low, Parikh stressed Facebook uses “cheap, low cost chips.”

A blog post about Terragraph further explained that the wireless system and related technology comes from an existing Wi-Fi standard known as WiGig, which Facebook engineers explained is “designed for consumer electronics, which allowed us to create nodes that are inexpensive relative to traditional telecom infrastructure.”

Additionally, the wireless system uses unlicensed spectrum, which don’t require permission from regulators to use, but is generally more unstable than licensed spectrum “because it gets absorbed in water and oxygen,” Parikh added. To improve the efficiency of the wireless system, Parikh said the company incorporated some of the advanced networking techniques Facebook uses in its massive data centers to ensure data continues to flow without interruption, regardless of failures.

“The system will recover where there are outages,” Parikh promised, regarding Terragraph.

Facebook is currently testing a prototype of Terragraph at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. with plans to test it out in nearby San Jose as well. Parikh did not specify when the San Jose trial would commence, but the plan is to eventually expand it to other cities.

Terragraph system installed at Facebook's headquarters.
Terragraph system installed at Facebook’s headquarters.

Additionally, Facebook wants to eventually open source the project and make it available for free as part of the company’s recently launched Telco Infra Project (TIP). Within this group, members have free access to hardware and software designs in order build custom cheaper and more efficient communications equipment. Current partners of that group include Deutsche Telekom, Nokia, and Intel (INTC).

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As part of its Internet connection initiative, Facebook has previously detailed how it built a huge, solar-powered drone with the wingspan of a Boeing 737 that can stay up in the stratosphere and beam down the Internet to regions in India and other countries that may lack solid Internet connections.

Parikh did not give an update about where the drone project stands, but he instead turned his attention to two Internet connectivity research projects on the ground. While optimistic about the outcome of the new research projects, Parikh did warn that it won’t be easy as just turning on a switch.

“We have a long journey ahead,” Parikh posited.

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