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Making sense of Facebook's moves to speed up the mobile Internet

The company -- like Google, Starry and others -- hopes to tap high-frequency waves to speed up the mobile Internet in urban areas.


Facebook has a lot of ideas for delivering fast wireless Internet. While Tuesday’s talk highlighted its work with solar-powered drones, the company offered up a pair of ideas on Wednesday that are decidedly more down to earth.

One is dubbed Terragraph and relies on a high-frequency section on unlicensed airwaves. The other, known as Project Aries, has to do with sending more data over a given portion of airwaves, a concept known as spectral efficiency.

It’s all pretty nerdy stuff, but the idea is that more people could get on to the Internet if wireless networks were faster, cheaper and more efficient.

 A prototype of Facebook’s Terragraph system for high-frequency wireless Internet
A prototype of Facebook’s Terragraph system for high-frequency wireless Internet

Facebook says it isn’t looking to build and deploy these networks. It just wants them in place so people can take advantage of them to post more status updates, Instagram photos, etc.

“We’re just trying to advance the state of the art,” Facebook engineering VP Jay Parikh said at the company’s F8 developer conference on Wednesday.

With Terragraph, Facebook is looking at ways to help in densely populated urban areas using a swath of unlicensed airwaves in the 60GHz spectrum. The advantage of such high-frequency airwaves is they can transmit a lot of data quickly. The downside is that such signals travel only a short distance and can’t easily pass through walls and other objects. Facebook says it is currently testing Terragraph at its headquarters and plans a broader test in nearby San Jose, Calif.

However, Facebook is far from alone in seeing opportunities at higher frequency bands than are traditionally used today for carrying data. Google is also looking at opportunities here, as is startup Starry. Beyond that, high-frequency “millimeter-wave” spectrum is expected to become part of the standard for the next generation of cellular networks, known as 5G.

The same chunk of spectrum Facebook is talking about harnessing is also being targeted for other uses. The 60GHz block that Facebook is using for Terragraph is unlicensed. Like the airwaves used for Wi-Fi, that means the bandwidth is freely available for all manner of uses. One existing effort, known as WiGig, uses that spectrum for sending data quickly within a room, such as from a computer to a display or other peripherals.

Project Aries, meanwhile, is aimed at rural areas that today often have older, slower wireless network. The idea here is to increase the capacity of such networks without needing a wider chunk of airwaves or installing additional network infrastructure. Facebook says it believes Aries could allow ten times the number of users at one time compared with traditional 4G networks while also covering larger distances.

Wireless consultant Chetan Sharma said that the technology of using higher frequency spectrum is pretty well understood. The challenges are more around doing so in a cost-effective manner. That’s where Facebook could help if it is able to drive down the cost of the infrastructure by making it a commodity.

“This is all part of an effort to drive the cost of access down,” Sharma said.

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