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Facebook’s Three-Point Plan to Get Four Billion More People Online

The social network wants to use satellites, drones, and new forms of wireless to widen Internet access.
October 18, 2016

Satellites, stratospheric drones, and new forms of wireless networks—these are the technologies Facebook is betting on to make Internet access much, much cheaper and more widely available.

Today, roughly 4.2 billion people are not online. The social network established its Connectivity Lab in 2014 to work on new communications technologies to dramatically shrink that number.

Yael Maguire, head of the connectivity lab, laid out his plan to deliver on that mission at EmTech MIT 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Tuesday. He said the lab has to develop multiple new technologies in parallel because the problem of getting people online is too complex for a single answer.

“There is no single solution that will connect everyone,” said Maguire, who was named to MIT Technology Review’s list of young innovators in 2005.

Maguire said that the first large-scale deployments of his Facebook lab’s technology could come in a matter of months, as the company starts to roll out a new kind of wireless network dubbed Terragraph.

By using radio links that operate at a much higher frequency than Wi-Fi or cellular connections, Terragraph can offer downloads of over one gigabit per second. That matches a high-speed fiber connection and is roughly 100 times the speed of the average U.S. broadband link. Facebook is planning a small test in downtown San Jose, California, this year.

Maguire said that Terragraph could help cities in countries like India leapfrog from 2G data connections to faster links than cities in the U.S. have today.

To serve people outside of urban areas, Facebook is testing a carbon fiber drone with a wingspan of more than 40 meters. Known as Aquila, the craft took its first flight earlier this year. It flew at roughly 2,000 feet for just over 90 minutes but drew only the power equivalent to two hair dryers, said Maguire.

Aquila is designed to operate in the stratosphere, between 18 and 28 kilometers of altitude, well above commercial air traffic. Data will be passed between drones and the ground using lasers or radio links.

However, deployment of Aquila is “years out,” said Maguire. Each Aquila craft needs to operate for three months at a time without landing to be practical, he said. The plan is to have the craft use solar panels and batteries to fulfill its energy needs.

But even flying for 24 hours isn’t possible using current technology, said Maguire. “That is going to take some advances in battery technology,” he said. “There are experimental battery technologies that will become available in coming years.”

For the most sparsely populated areas, Facebook is interested in using satellites to provide Internet access, said Maguire. But he also signaled that this is a lower priority. “It’s still very expensive to put instrumentation in space to provide connectivity,” he said.

His lab is also prioritizing its efforts on the most densely populated areas, where new infrastructure can serve the greatest numbers of people. Maguire’s team even developed a new, more accurate map of the world’s population by using image recognition software to scour satellite images for signs of habitation.

Facebook’s map will be released for free in the “coming months,” said Maguire. The company also intends to make the technologies developed in the Aquila and Terragraph projects available for other organizations to use as they wish. Cellular networks or governments might use Facebook’s technology to expand their infrastructure, for example.

That could lead Facebook into controversial territory, because in some parts of the world communications infrastructure is monitored or controlled by governments. But Maguire said that his lab is focused simply on seeing networks get built out. When asked if Facebook would be okay if operators in China or Tibet—where the Internet is censored—used Facebook’s technology, Maguire’s answer was simple: “Absolutely.”

Maguire also argued that his lab’s work isn’t overly concerned with Facebook’s business of selling ads—which would benefit from more people being online. “We’re not trying to focus directly on what does Facebook need as a company to grow,” he said. “The company has been very, very successful and we want to figure out how we can give back to society.”

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