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Facebook Renews Its Global Connectivity Ambitions



Faced with increased scrutiny over its social media policies and relentless pursuit of growth, Facebook is now focusing on expanding access to high-speed internet in hard-to-reach areas. The move is somewhat ironic, given that it comes on the heels of Facebook's own massive outage, which temporarily knocked out all of its apps.


In a press briefing this week, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer lauded the Connectivity group's work and revealed plans to connect a billion more people to high-speed internet. According to Schroepfer, Facebook is developing a new 24-fiber transatlantic submarine cable system to connect Europe and the United States; it has enhanced its above-ground fiber deployment robot; and it is testing a "last-mile" wireless internet system capable of delivering gigabit speeds over the air.


The efforts have been ongoing for years. Facebook announced 18 months ago that it was partnering with African operators to build massive subsea internet cables. Terragraph, the wireless system, began development in 2015, while Bombyx, the fiber-optic robot, debuted in 2018. (The latter has not been deployed yet, but was initially announced in the summer of 2020.)


Schroepfer and other executives, including Dan Rabinovits and Yael Maguire, believe that these new technologies have the potential to bring fiber, or fiber-like speeds, to the masses much more quickly and inexpensively than traditional fiber deployments. According to Schroepfer, the Bombyx bot represents "one of the single largest decreases in the cost of fiber deployment in history," and that Facebook has now developed breakthrough technologies across three layers of internet infrastructure: subsea cables, the Bombyx robot, and a system for delivering gigabit-speed internet over the air.


"Almost half of the world's population still lacks internet access, and the primary reason for this digital divide is affordability," Rabinovitsj says. "This is especially true in countries where providing internet access for less than a dollar per day is considered affordable."


Facebook is one of several technology companies with the goal of globalizing internet access. However, many have encountered technical and political impediments. Google has ceased development of its Loon project, which aimed to beam internet access via helium balloons. From 2010 to 2015, it also operated Google Fiber, utilizing existing utility poles in some markets and digging trenches in others. However, Google discovered that maintaining such a system was prohibitively expensive.


Meanwhile, Amazon and SpaceX are investing billions in low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to provide internet access via "constellations" of thousands of satellites. (Facebook had a team working on LEO satellites; three months ago, Amazon acquired this team.)


Facebook has previously experimented with pie-in-the-sky internet-access ideas that did not pan out. Aquila, the company's experimental solar-powered drone, was decommissioned in 2018. And then there was FreeBasics, which was part of Facebook's larger Internet.org initiative and was intended to provide free, no-frills internet to Indian phone users. However, critics claimed that Facebook's offer of free but limited internet violated net neutrality rules, prompting the Indian government to ban the service.


Facebook is in an unmatched position of strength: in some parts of the world, the social media company has already become synonymous with the internet, despite the fact that it is not technically an internet service provider. Additionally, as its content moderation and targeted advertising practices come under increased scrutiny, having its hands in the internet's underlying infrastructure may raise concerns.


Facebook initially announced plans to build a 37,000-kilometer subsea cable, dubbed 2Africa, in the spring of 2020, and recently announced an expansion. It is scheduled for completion in 2023 or 2024. According to reports, the new transatlantic cable project will provide 200 times the capacity of the submarine cables laid in the early 2000's.


Its most recent announcements are not focused exclusively on Africa or other emerging markets. The Bombyx robot can be deployed anywhere there are existing power lines, and Facebook reports that 30,000 Terragraph units have already been deployed in Anchorage, Alaska, and Perth, Australia, among other locations.


Bombyx appears to be quite nifty in terms of robots. After being attached to a power line by a technician, it crawls along the line, wrapping itself around the cable and spooling out Kevlar-reinforced fiber as it goes (both for strength and to withstand the heat of medium-voltage power lines). Due to the fact that the bot's survival requires a certain amount of balance, the Facebook team claims it has reengineered the bot to be lighter, nimbler, and more stable. Additionally, it reduced the bot's load from 96 to 24 fiber optic strands after determining that a single fiber can connect up to 1,000 homes in a nearby area.


To be clear, Facebook has not reinvented fiber-optic cables; rather, it has devised a method for running them above ground, utilizing existing power infrastructure, rather than digging trenches to lay the cables underground. And it has devised a semi-autonomous method of accomplishing this, by developing a robot capable of "autonomously installing over a kilometer of fiber and navigating dozens of intervening obstacles in an hour and a half."


Terragraph, on the other hand, was described by Facebook's Rabinovitsj and Maguire as a system comprised of several technologies. It is based on the WiFi Alliance's 802.11ay standard. It is a technology reference design that was created in collaboration with Qualcomm. Additionally, it is a mesh Wi-Fi system that utilizes existing street structures such as lamp posts and traffic lights as nodes. The result, they claim, is multi-gigabit speeds comparable to those of fiber lines—but transmitted over the air.


"This means that anyone can deploy it without first obtaining a license from a regulator," Maguire explains. "This makes it extremely affordable, which is another of its innovations."


Human Rights Activists' Complaints


When it comes to building out a fiber network, Facebook is not foolish to try to leverage existing infrastructure and reduce labor costs. However, the company's previous forays into telecommunications have enraged telecom operators and human rights activists alike. Some have accused the company of establishing a two-tiered internet, which they believe will exacerbate access disparities.


Rabinovitsj, who leads Facebook Connectivity, insisted during the interview that Facebook is not an internet service provider and has no intention of becoming one. He stated that the company is not seeking revenue from the project and is instead freely licensing the technology to others. He did concede, however, that Facebook benefits from increased data sharing globally, as does anyone else with a digital property.


According to Peter Micek, general counsel for the digital civil rights nonprofit Access Now—which has previously received funding from Facebook for its RightsCon conference—the rate of laying fiber for wired internet access has essentially stalled over the last four years, which is "not ideal." It is unlikely to occur at the rates required to bring the next billion people online in the near future." According to him, people in less developed countries are "still heavily reliant on mobile, but there is still a lot that mobile cannot do."


Micek acknowledged that some of Facebook's earlier efforts in this area were speculative, but added that the company possesses the financial resources to experiment and take risks. What concerns him more, he says, are Facebook's "vertical ambitions," or its efforts to build out the internet from seafloor infrastructure to end devices, such as its augmented and virtual reality hardware.


"It appears as though everything they touch becomes a data-mining exhibition," Micek says. "I'd be concerned about any company that seeks to control all layers of the stack, but particularly Facebook, which has demonstrated for nearly two decades that their way is the only way."

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