Facing heightened scrutiny for its social media policies and relentless quest for growth, Facebook is now turning its attention to getting more people high-speed internet access in hard-to-reach places. The move comes with some irony, as it comes on the heels of Facebook’s own massive outage, which temporarily took down all of the apps in its empire.
In a briefing with press this week, Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer trumpeted the work of the company’s Connectivity group and revealed plans to connect a billion more people around the globe via high-speed internet. Schroepfer says Facebook is working on a new, 24-fiber transatlantic subsea cable system that will connect Europe to the US; has improved its aboveground, fiber-deploying robot; and has been testing a “last-mile” wireless internet system that delivers gigabit speeds over the air.
The efforts have been years in the works. Eighteen months ago, Facebook said it had partnered with African operators to build massive subsea internet cables. Development on the wireless system, called Terragraph, started in 2015, while the fiber-focused robot, Bombyx, was first developed in 2018. (The latter has not yet been deployed, but was first announced in the summer of 2020.)
Schroepfer and other executives, including Dan Rabinovitsj and Yael Maguire, say these new technologies could bring fiber, or fiber-like speeds, to the masses much more quickly and cheaply than typical fiber deployments. Schroepfer says the Bombyx bot represents “one of the single largest drops in the cost of fiber deployment ever,” and that Facebook has now developed breakthrough technologies across three layers of internet infrastructure: the subsea cables, the Bombyx robot, and a system that delivers gigabit-speed internet over the air.
“Almost half of the world still lacks internet access, and affordability is the primary reason for this digital divide,” Rabinovitsj says. “Especially in countries where affordability means providing internet access for less than a dollar per day.”
Facebook is among several tech companies with ambitions of expanding internet access around the world. But many have run into both technical and political obstacles. Google shuttered its Loon project that aimed to beam internet access via helium balloons. It also ran Google Fiber from 2010 until 2015, relying on existing utility poles in some markets and digging trenches in others. But that proved to be too costly for Google to maintain.
Meanwhile, Amazon and SpaceX are investing billions in low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which would provide internet access through “constellations” of thousands of satellites. (Facebook had a team working on LEO satellites; this team was acquired by Amazon just three months ago.)
Facebook has had its own pie-in-the-sky, internet-access ideas before that didn’t exactly pan out. Its experimental solar-powered drone project, Aquila, was powered down in 2018. And then there was FreeBasics, which was part of Facebook’s broader Internet.org initiative and was supposed to offer free, no-frills internet to phone users in India. But critics said Facebook’s offer of free-but-limited internet violated the rules of net neutrality, and the Indian government banned the service.
Facebook is in a uniquely powerful position: In some parts of the world, the social media company is already synonymous with the internet, even if it is not technically an internet service provider. And as its content moderation and targeted advertising practices fall under increasing scrutiny, having its hands in the underlying infrastructure of the internet could raise concerns as well.
Facebook first revealed its plans to build a 37,000-kilometer subsea cable, named 2Africa, in the spring of 2020, and it announced an expansion last month. It’s expected to be completed in 2023 or 2024. The new transatlantic cable project will supposedly provide 200 times more capacity than the submarine cables that were laid in the early 2000’s.
Its latest announcements aren’t aimed just at Africa or other emerging markets. The Bombyx robot could be deployed anywhere there’s existing power structures, since it leverages already-built power lines; and Facebook says 30,000 Terragraph units have already been rolled out in Anchorage, Alaska, and Perth, Australia, among other places.
Bombyx looks nifty, as far as robots go. After a technician places it on a power line, it crawls along the line, wrapping itself around the cable as it goes, spooling out Kevlar-reinforced fiber (both for strength and to withstand the heat of medium-voltage power lines). Since it requires a certain amount of balance for the bot to stay on the line, the Facebook team says it has reengineered the bot to be lighter, nimbler, and more stable. And it lowered the bot’s load from 96 fiber optic strands to 24, after determining that a single fiber can provide internet access for up to 1,000 homes in a nearby area.
To be clear, Facebook hasn’t reinvented fiber-optic cables; it’s come up with a scheme to run them above ground, using existing power infrastructure, instead of digging trenches to lay the cables underground. And it has come up with a semi-autonomous way to do this, by building a robot that it claims will eventually be capable of “installing over a kilometer of fiber and passing dozens of intervening obstacles autonomously in an hour and a half.”
As for Terragraph, Facebook’s Rabinovitsj and Maguire described Terragraph as a system composed of several technologies. It relies on the 802.11ay standard established by the WiFi Alliance. It’s a technology reference design, developed in partnership with Qualcomm. And it’s also a mesh Wi-Fi system that uses nodes on existing street structures, like lamp posts and traffic lights. The result, they say, is multi-gigabit speeds that match the speeds of fiber lines—but in this case, it’s being transmitted over the air.
“That means anybody can deploy this without having to go get a license from a regulator,” Maguire says. “So that makes it very affordable, and is one of its other innovations.”
Complaints From Human Rights Activists
Facebook is not unwise to try to leverage existing infrastructure and reduce labor costs when it comes to building out a fiber network. But the company’s earlier forays into telecommunications have rankled both telecom operators and human rights activists. Some have accused the company of building a two-tiered internet that could widen disparities in access.
In the interview, Rabinovitsj, who leads Facebook Connectivity, insisted that Facebook is not an internet service provider and is not interested in becoming one. He said the company is not looking to generate revenue from the project and is licensing the technology to others for free. He did concede, however, that Facebook does benefit from more data being shared around the globe, and that anyone else with a digital property benefits as well.
Peter Micek, general counsel for the digital civil rights nonprofit Access Now—which has in the past received funding from Facebook for the organization’s RightsCon conference—says that over the past four years, the rate of laying fiber for wired internet access has basically stalled, which is “not ideal. It’s not happening at the rates needed to bring the next billion people online anytime soon.” He says people in less developed countries are “still largely dependent on mobile, but there’s still a lot you can’t do on mobile.”
Micek acknowledged that some of Facebook’s earlier projects in this area have been speculative, and that it has the cash to experiment and take risks. What concerns him more, he says, is Facebook’s “vertical ambitions,” the fact that it’s working to build out the internet from seafloor infrastructure all the way to end devices, like its hardware in AR and VR.
“Everything they touch seems to turn into a data-mining exhibition,” Micek says. “I’d be concerned about any company that wants to control all layers of the stack, but especially Facebook, which has shown for almost two decades that it’s their way or the highway.”