Facebook Has A New Plan To Boost Internet Access In Developing, Urban Areas

Facebook Has A New Plan To Boost Internet Access In Developing, Urban Areas

Facebook has taken new steps in its quest to connect the entire world to the Internet — and to its social network.

On Wednesday, the company unveiled two new terrestrial systems built to improve the speed, efficiency and quality of Internet connectivity around the world: Terragraph for dense urban areas and ARIES for developing countries. Facebook FB -0.01% announced its two new systems at its annual F8 conference in San Francisco, attended by about 2,500 developers.

Terragraph is a 60GHz wireless system aimed at bringing high speed internet to dense urban areas. Facebook FB -0.01% is currently testing the system at its headquarters and plans to test the system soon in the city of San Jose, Calif. Facebook’s VP of engineering Jay Parikh emphasized the cost efficiency of the system at the conference. Facebook FB -0.01% said developed economies tend to be hampered by WiFi and LTE infrastructure that can’t keep up with users’ consumption of photos and video at higher resolutions. Facebook noted that alternatives such as optical fiber, which can provide hundreds of megabits up to several gigabits of capacity, are far too expensive for most countries.

Facebook said Terragraph delivers gigabit speeds to dense urban areas at a fraction of the cost of fiber by placing small boxes called nodes, made up of off-the-shelf parts, around the city about 200 to 250 meters apart on objects such as light poles. The design of the Terragraph network, which uses an antenna that can communicate over a wide area, is able to steer around obstructions such as buildings and handle Internet congestion caused by high user traffic. Facebook said it is one of the lowest cost options to achieve 100% street-level coverage with gigabit WiFi and can also be used to connect entire high-rises.

For developing nations, Facebook debuted ARIES (which stands for Antenna Radio Integration for Efficiency in Spectrum). The system can cover more users across large, rural areas by using multiple transmitters and receivers. ARIES is a base station with 96 antennas that can support 24 devices or streams simultaneously over the same radio spectrum. Facebook said the ARIES will demonstrate an unprecedented 100+ bps/Hz of spectral efficiency, a 10x spectral and energy efficiency gain over typical 4G systems while accommodating about 12 times as many simultaneous users. Developing economies are currently often unable to support data rates better than 2G.

According to a Facebook study across 20 countries, more than 90% of people live within 40 km of a major city. Typically in developing areas, Internet connections are improved by licensing larger radio frequency spectrums or installing more base stations, which is expensive and difficult. The company said ARIES can be used as a way to extend the network from city centers to nearby communities efficiently, while still providing high speed connections. Facebook said it plans to make its new systems available to wireless research and academic communities. By open sourcing its wireless hardware, Zuckerberg said Facebook can help make it cheaper for telecom companies to improve mobile infrastructure.

“We stand for connecting every person, for a global community, for bringing people together, for giving everyone a voice,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at F8 on Monday, noting that currently more than half of people in the world don’t have Internet access. “Our lives are connected, and I hope that we have the courage to see that the path forward is to bring people together.”

Facebook is working on a host of other connectivity projects, such as its Internet-beaming drone Aquila, satellites, lasers and Free Basics, a program that has so far given 25 million people in 37 countries access to a handful of websites, including Facebook for free. The effort, which was recently banned in India, has been met with controversy, in part because of the limited number of websites it offers. However, Zuckerberg presents the effort as a way to give people who may have never had Internet access the opportunity to realize its value.

Follow me on Twitter @kchaykowski and e-mail me at kchaykowski@forbes.com.


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