Facebook is testing two wireless technologies closer to traditional telecoms infrastructure than some of its more innovative ideas to spread coverage, the company revealed during its F8 developer event.
One of the two terrestrial systems is intended to fill gaps in dense urban areas, while the other is about connecting off-net users in the developing world.
The company’s Connectivity Lab is normally associated with non-terrestrial technology such as drones, lasers and satellites, but Facebook has now strayed into areas usually occupied by traditional telecoms vendors. Some of these vendors have expressed scepticism about Facebook’s innovations.
Facebook’s Terragraph system operates in the 60 GHz part of the radio spectrum, which is also known as the V-band. The band is unlicensed in many countries, including the US, UK, Germany, China, South Korea and Japan. Up to 7 GHz is available in this band, with some countries such as the UK proposing to expand available capacity to 14 GHz.
Terragraph is based on WiGig, an enhancement to the Wi-Fi standard, which is designed to boost in-room bandwidth. The system is made up of radios designed for consumer electronics which, Facebook says, means they cost less than traditional telecoms gear.
The concept is to place nodes at 200-250 metre intervals around a city where the system can offer affordable coverage in non line-of-sight conditions. With large blocks of flats, the Terragraph system can be attached to the outside and linked to in-building Ethernet network.
The second initiative is Project Aries, a transmission technology that is designed to be spectrally and energy efficient. It is a proof-of-concept effort that uses a base station with 96 antennas in a massive MIMO deployment.
A recent Facebook study across 20 countries found nearly 97 per cent of the world’s population lives within 40 kilometres of a major city, a conclusion that encouraged the social giant it can provide communications to rural (or semi-rural) communities from city centres, which is what Project Aries is designed to achieve.
The two technologies fit with Facebook’s connectivity agenda, one of its key goals over the next decade laid out by CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week. The other goals are the use of AI, in particular for its main app and Messenger; and VR through hardware such as the Oculus Rift headset and user experience on the Facebook site.
On the subject of forward-looking strategy, Facebook is establishing a new unit called Building 8 to work on the hardware in areas such as AI and VR. It will employ hundreds of staff and have investment of hundreds of millions of dollars. It will be headed by Regina Dugan, poached from Google. Dugan is a former head of US research agency Darpa.