Facebook highlights its broadband connectivity projects

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Amid the din of a whistleblower testifying to Facebook’s problematic policies and a recent widespread outage, the social media giant’s Connectivity unit provided a detailed update this week on its grand connectivity strategy.

The extensive briefing covered Facebook’s submarine cable deployment, advances in a robot capable of deploying fiber strands along power lines, and new stats for Terragraph, a wireless access platform. fixed that uses an unlicensed millimeter wave spectrum.

Facebook Connectivity estimates that more than 300 million people now have access to a faster Internet in one form or another thanks to the work of Facebook Connectivity dating back to 2013, and believes its various plans and initiatives discussed this week put it in a position. to connect the next billion. ”

“Reliable, high-speed internet access that connects us to people around the world is something billions of people around the world miss,” Mike Schroepfer, CTO of Facebook, said at the “Inside” panel discussion the Lab ”of the company. “The status quo will not solve the problem. We need radical breakthroughs to make sweeping improvements ?? 10x faster speeds, 10x lower costs.”

A handful of Facebook executives and engineers detailed some of the work in progress, focusing on an undersea cable initiative that provides backbone capability to regions such as Africa, a new way to deploy low cost fiber networks and use millimeter wave spectrum to deliver gigabit class speeds to homes and businesses.

Underwater developments

On the data backbone of the connectivity ledger, Facebook and its partners are building 150,000 kilometers of submarine cables and working on new offshore power plants that keep those cables in working order. .

“This will have a major impact on underserved regions of the world, particularly in Africa, where our work is expected to triple the amount of Internet bandwidth reaching the continent,” said Dan Rabinovitsj, vice president of connectivity at Facebook. This activity is partly linked to a new segment of submarine cables called 2Africa PEARLS which will link three continents: Africa, Europe and Asia.

Facebook says 2Africa Pearls, a new segment of submarine cable that connects Africa, Europe and Asia, will bring the total length of the 2Africa cable system to over 45,000 kilometers, making it the longest long submarine cable system never deployed.
(Source: Facebook)

Cynthia Perret, head of Facebook’s infrastructure program, noted that each transatlantic cable Facebook connects will contain 24 pairs of fibers.

But “capacity alone is not enough,” she said, noting that Facebook is also working on ways to configure and tailor the amount of capacity provided at each landing point. Facebook also uses a model called “Atlantis” to help predict and optimize where submarine cable routes need to be built. A built-in adaptive bandwidth system will also allow Facebook to move capacity based on traffic patterns, reduce congestion and improve reliably, Perret explained.

Facebook is also exploring new ways to power repeaters deployed along the submarine cable route. Rather than feeding these cables from somewhere on land, which is a “major constraint,” Facebook is teaming up with partners on floating electric buoys that can be deployed along underwater fiber routes, explained Perret.

Facebook announces that it will soon begin tests of floating buoys to supply its submarine cables.  (Source: Facebook)

Facebook announces that it will soon begin tests of floating buoys to supply its submarine cables.
(Source: Facebook)

By tapping into a mix of solar panels and wave energy converters, the goal is to continuously generate up to 25 kilowatts of electricity for submarine cables. This solution, according to the company, will help increase capacity from 0.5 petabits per second to 5 Pbit / s. Facebook plans to start testing these floating plants “shortly,” Perret said.

I, (fiber deployment) Robot

Facebook has also been active on earth, announcing that it has made major progress with Bombyx, a robot that deploys strands of fiber along widely deployed medium-voltage power lines.

The general idea behind Bombyx, a project introduced last year, is to dramatically reduce the costs and time required to deploy fiber. Facebook estimates that each robot will eventually be able to install more than a kilometer of fiber ?? and avoid obstacles along the way ?? in about 90 minutes.

Facebook wireless systems engineer Karthik Yogeeswaran noted that Bombyx is inspired by helical fiber optic packaging techniques developed in the 1980s, but represents a huge leap. Bombyx, for example, does not require a heavy counterweight or constant human intervention, or the need to cut off power during deployment ?? the elements which made these first efforts far from being widely used. Rather than using a counterweight, Facebook developed a spoolless cable spool in the shape of an airplane neck pillow with an opening that allows Bombyx to pass over obstacles.

Facebook also outfitted the robot with the type of thruster fans used in drones to keep the robot balanced and keep the cable from swaying. The robot also has access to a 3D map generated from an on-board camera and custom sensors that detect and analyze the boundaries of obstacles.

According to Yogeeswaran, these innovations reduced the time it took Bombyx to clear a hurdle from 17 minutes to four minutes. He said work was underway to make the Bombyx robot fully autonomous to operate as it cleared obstacles.

And Facebook’s work in this area extends beyond the Bombyx robot itself. The company also helped design a smaller, flexible, heat-resistant cable suitable for deployments along power lines. This design helped Facebook reduce the number of strands in these cables from 96 fibers to just 24 fibers. This development combo makes fiber optic cable about ten times lighter and smaller than normal overhead fiber cable, Yogeeswaran said.

Facebook has yet to announce any significant deployment activity for Bombyx, but that day is approaching. “While the pandemic has slowed development, we are now finishing our prototype phase and starting pilot discussions with a handful of electric utilities,” Yogeeswaran said.

“This is a convenient way to leverage existing infrastructure to bring fast internet access to more people,” said Rabinovitsj, a former senior executive at Ruckus Wireless who joined Facebook in 2018.

Updating the terragraph

Along with its fiber-building business, Facebook has also tried to push the ball forward a bit on more mature technology ?? Terragraph, a fixed wireless access platform designed to operate in an unlicensed 60 GHz millimeter wave spectrum and provide fiber-like capabilities.

Facebook continued to market Terragraph as a way to bridge the connectivity gap at a fraction of the costs required to dig fiber. “You can think of this as an extension of the fiber in the air,” said Yael Maguire, vice president of engineering at Facebook.

Facebook, which launched the Terragraph vision in 2015 and counts Qualcomm among its technology partners, has developed the architecture of the system a bit. It relies on a network of distribution nodes linked to fiber-based point of presence (POP) sites. Meanwhile, consumer nodes, mounted on the sides of buildings or on rooftops, connect to the premises and the end user via Ethernet cables or Wi-Fi routers.

Due to the limited range of the 60 GHz spectrum, nodes should be placed at intervals of 200 to 250 meters. Maguire spoke about the distributed nature of Terragraph’s architecture and the use of a “resilient mesh” that takes advantage of a signal rerouting function built into each node.

“The network is understandable, once deployed,” he explained.

Facebook posted updated statistics on Terragraph, a technology licensed for free to a handful of manufacturing partners. The company noted that more than 30,000 Terragraph units have been deployed so far with more than 100 service providers and system integrators around the world.

Alaska Communications is among those who use Terragraph with fixed wireless access equipment manufactured by Cambium Networks. Alaska’s snow and ice and a short five- to six-month fiber construction season made Terragraph particularly attractive for some last mile deployments, according to Rick Benken, vice president of network strategy, engineering. and Alaska Communications operations.

Alaska Communications is early in the deployment process, having brought Terragraph-based services to a few neighborhoods in Anchorage. Benken said the company plans to expand the deployment to parts of Fairbanks, Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula in the coming years.

Facebook Connectivity estimates that Terragraph has brought broadband to more than 6,500 homes in Anchorage. Among other examples, Terragraph is used to bring more connectivity to Perth, the isolated city in Western Australia, through a partnership with Pentanet and Cambium.

The Facebook failure “quite humiliating”

The irony of Facebook’s connectivity announcements following a massive outage on Monday, October 4 has not escaped the company. Schroepfer acknowledged this in his opening comments, noting that he was “very sorry to all who were affected” by the blackout.

“It’s all up and running again, but when you provide an essential communications platform to billions of people, I never want to see such downtime. We pride ourselves on running a reliable infrastructure for the whole world, so [Monday] was pretty humiliating, ”Schroepfer said. “It’s a good reminder of the work we do today, how about the thing we all take for granted ?? reliable high-speed internet access that connects us to people around the world ?? is something that billions of people around the world miss. ”

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– Jeff Baumgartner, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading


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