Tencent technology news on October 8, social networking giant Facebook’s social media policy and unremitting pursuit of growth are under stricter scrutiny, but the company has never given up its ambition of “connecting the world”. Now, the company is turning its attention to the goal of providing more remote areas with high-speed Internet access. This seems ironic, because Facebook has just suffered a large-scale outage recently, and all its applications have been temporarily paralyzed.
At a recent press conference, Mike Schroepfer, chief technology officer of Facebook, trumpeted the work of the company’s connectivity group and revealed his plan to connect 1 billion people around the world through high-speed Internet. Schropfel said that Facebook is developing a three-dimensional sea, land and air networking scheme, including the construction of a transatlantic submarine cable system to connect Europe and the United States, the improvement of robots for deploying optical fiber cables on the ground, and insisted on testing the so-called “last mile” wireless Internet system that can transmit data at Gigabit speed.
Facebook’s efforts have been brewing for years. 18 months ago, Facebook said that it had cooperated with African operators to build large-scale submarine Internet cables. The development of a wireless communication system called terragraph began in 2015, while the robot Bombyx focusing on the deployment of optical fiber was first developed in 2018. The latter has not yet been deployed, but will debut in the summer of 2020.
Schropfel and other executives, including Dan rabinovitsj (vice president of connectivity group) and Yael Maguire (Engineering Director of Facebook connectivity laboratory), said that these new technologies can bring the speed of optical fiber or similar optical fiber to the public faster and cheaper than typical optical fiber deployment. Schropfel said that the Bombyx robot represents “one of the biggest reductions in the cost of optical fiber deployment in history”. Facebook has now developed breakthrough technologies on the three-tier Internet infrastructure: submarine cable, Bombyx ground robot and wireless Internet system transmitting data at Gigabit speed.
Rabinowitzki said: “almost half of the world’s population still lacks Internet access. Affordability is the main reason for this digital divide, especially in countries that provide Internet access at less than $1 a day.”
Facebook is one of several technology companies ambitious to expand Internet access around the world. But many companies have encountered technical and political obstacles, such as Google’s closure of its Loon project aimed at transmitting Internet access through helium balloons. Google also operated the experimental optical fiber network Google fiber from 2010 to 2015, but it has proved too expensive for Google to maintain.
Meanwhile, Amazon and SpaceX are investing billions of dollars in launching low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which will provide Internet access through the “constellation” of thousands of satellites. Facebook also had a team that studied LEO satellites, but it was acquired by Amazon three months ago.
Prior to this, Facebook also had its own idea of accessing the Internet, but it was not fully realized. For example, its experimental solar UAV project Aquila was shelved in 2018. Then there is freebasics, which is part of Facebook’s broader internet.org program, which should have provided free Internet services to telephone users in India. But critics say the free but limited Internet service provided by Facebook violates the rules of network neutrality, and the Indian government has banned the service.
Facebook is in a unique and powerful position: in some parts of the world, this social networking company has become synonymous with the Internet. Although strictly speaking, it is not an Internet service provider. As its content review and targeted advertising practices are increasingly reviewed, involvement in the Internet infrastructure may also raise concerns.
Facebook first disclosed its plan to build a 37000 km submarine cable named 2africa in the spring of 2020, and announced its expansion plan last month, which is expected to be completed in 2023 or 2024. The new transatlantic cable project is expected to provide 200 times more capacity than the submarine cable laid in early 2000. New projects are not just aimed at Africa or other emerging markets. The Bombyx robot can be deployed anywhere there is an existing power structure because it uses the built transmission line. Facebook said that 30000 terragraph units have been laid in Anchorage, Alaska and Perth, Australia.
As far as robots are concerned, Bombyx looks beautiful. After technicians put it on the power line, it will crawl along the power line, wrap itself on the cable and wind aramid reinforced fiber (to enhance strength and bear the heat of medium voltage power line). Because the robot needs a certain balance to stay on the wire, the Facebook team said they had redesigned the robot to make it lighter, more flexible and more stable. After determining that one optical fiber can provide Internet access to up to 1000 families in nearby areas, the company reduced the load of the robot from 96 optical fibers to 24.
It should be clear that Facebook did not reinvent the optical cable, but proposed a new scheme to lay the optical cable on the ground using the existing power infrastructure, rather than digging trenches to lay the optical cable underground. Facebook has come up with a semi-automatic way to achieve the whole goal. By manufacturing a robot, it claims that it will eventually be able to “install more than 1km of optical fiber and automatically pass through dozens of intermediate obstacles in an hour and a half.
As for terragraph, rabinowitzki and Maguire of Facebook describe terragraph as a system composed of several technologies. It relies on the 802.11ay standard established by the WiFi alliance, which is a technical reference design developed in cooperation with Qualcomm. It is also a mesh Wi Fi system that utilizes nodes on existing street structures, such as lamp posts and traffic lights. As a result, the transmission speed of Gigabit is equivalent to that of optical fiber line, but in this case, it is wireless transmission.
“This means that anyone can deploy this device without the permission of the regulatory authority. Therefore, the price of this device is very affordable, which is another innovation,” Maguire said
It is wise for Facebook to try to take advantage of existing infrastructure and reduce labor costs when building optical networks. But the company’s earlier move into telecommunications angered telecom operators and human rights activists. Many people criticized the company for establishing a “double-layer” Internet, which may widen the access gap.
In the interview, rabinowitzki insisted that Facebook is not an Internet service provider and has no interest in becoming an Internet service provider. Instead of seeking revenue from the project, he said, the company licensed the technology to others free of charge. However, he does admit that Facebook does benefit from more data shared around the world, as does anyone else who owns digital property.
Peter Micek, general counsel of access now, a digital civil rights non-profit organization, said that in the past four years, the laying speed of optical fiber for wired internet access has basically stagnated, which is “not ideal”. This is not the speed needed to get the next billion people online in the short term. People in less developed countries “still rely heavily on mobile devices, but there are still many things you can’t do on mobile devices,” he said.
Mitchek acknowledged that many of Facebook’s earlier projects in this area were speculative, but it had cash to experiment and take risks. He said that what worries him more is Facebook’s “vertical ambition”, that is, it is committed to the Internet construction from submarine infrastructure to terminal devices (such as AR and VR hardware). “Everything Facebook touches seems to turn into a data mining exhibition in the end. I’m worried about any company that wants to control all levels, especially Facebook.” (reviewed by Tencent technology / Jinlu)