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Facebook Enters the Race to Build 5G Networks

In announcing its Telecom Infra Project, Facebook is positioning itself to disrupt the global telecommunications industry—and get us all wearing VR goggles.

On Sunday, a picture of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg strutting through a room of people wearing virtual-reality goggles went viral. The image struck a nerve, embodying both the rising excitement over a wave of consumer VR headsets that are making their way to market and the fear that those same products might usher in a dystopian technological future—a future in which one of the most recognizable CEOs on the planet could walk through throngs of people without their noticing.

Around the same time, Facebook also made a less sexy though perhaps more important announcement: the launch of the Telecom Infra Project. A partnership with firms including Deutsche Telekom, SK Telecom, Intel, and Nokia, the initiative is designed to help build the next generation of wireless networks.

People have been talking for some time about how long it will be before ultrafast 5G networks arrive. The current consensus is 2019 at the earliest, though smaller test networks are being built now, and there are plans for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea to feature 5G.

Facebook and its TIP partners are looking to speed up that process by making the designs of wireless networking equipment open source. They hope companies will share information and speed up the rate at which new networks can be built and switched on.

A social-media company working in mobile telecoms may sound odd, but Facebook's Open Compute Project provides a successful precedent. Founded in 2011, Open Compute took the designs of of the data centers and large-scale networks Facebook was building—previously jealously guarded industry secrets—and published them for anyone to use. The result was a massive acceleration of cheap, efficient networking infrastructure that now counts giant firms from Microsoft to Goldman Sachs as adherents.

Similar success in the world of telecommunications could quicken the arrival of 5G wireless, a protocol that is said to be around 100 times faster than 4G, the current state of the art.

But Facebook has said that super-fast wireless speeds for customers who currently enjoy 4G networks—most of whom are comparatively rich and live in developed countries—are one of its goals. The bigger aim of the TIP is to improve connectivity around the world, including rural and developing regions. The group is starting by connecting a small village in the Philippines and a rural section of the Scottish Highlands.

As Facebook sees it, it’s all part of virtuous cycle that serves both its customers and its business interests: as connectivity improves for people everywhere, telecoms get more customers and Facebook gets more users. And the sooner networks get faster the sooner we’ll all be wearing VR goggles. Sold to us by Facebook, of course.

(Read More: Wired, New York Times, “Trick That Doubles Wireless Data Capacity Stands Up in Cell Network Tests”)

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