Like every year, Facebook is using MWC Barcelona to focus on its infrastructure projects. While you may mostly think of Facebook as a social network, the company started launching infrastructure projects for bringing more people online (and onto its network) many years ago.
These projects include things like the (now-cancelled) solar-powered Aquila drone and plenty of open-source software and hardware initiatives for carriers. Indeed, there are so many projects that range from physical devices and networks to software that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. That wide range is by design, though.
“The one thing that has been consistent since the very beginning is that there’s no silver bullet,” Facebook director of engineering Yael Maguire told me during an interview at MWC. “We try to contribute to different parts of the ecosystem. The ecosystem could be in dense urban markets where we’re doing things like Terragraph, or rural markets where we are doing Express Wi-Fi.”
At MWC, the company announced a number of new partnerships and projects that expand on its existing projects.
Maybe the most interesting of these projects is called Internet para Todos (IpT) Peru. What Facebook is trying to show here is that it’s possible to create an economically viable provider of rural mobile infrastructure. Facebook is building this together with Telefonica, IDB Invest and CAF (Development Bank of Latin America). It’s an open access network that will be open to all carriers. “It is very economically challenging to think about connecting small communities in rural parts of Peru, let alone other parts of the world,” Maguire said. “The idea is that we can create common infrastructure that is open access, let others innovate on business models and create competition etc. The hope is that a business case can close for IpT.” Over time, Facebook hopes to bring this model to other places, too — assuming it works, which Maguire admits is not a given since this is very much an experiment at this point. If the model works, though, then the hope is that commercial vendors will see that there’s money to be made by connecting these small rural communities.
As the company also announced today, Facebook is investing in a new 750km open-access fiber project in Nigeria, for example, which will provide fiber access to more than one million people. Facebook is co-investing in this project with a number of local state authorities. The company previously worked on a similar project in Uganda and as Maguire noted, it learned quite a bit from this experience, including how to make laying fiber through large bodies of water more economically viable. But it’s not just the logistics, it’s also working with the local bureaucracy — which Maguire says is harder than the technical challenges. “There’s not a lot of new technology that we are inventing for this right now,” he said, and also acknowledged that these are relatively small projects. But as the company learns, it plans to scale up these efforts and launch more projects in Africa, Latin America and Asia-Pacific.
The company is also announcing new partners for its Express Wi-Fi service, including Cell C in South Africa, Vodafone in Ghana and Globe in the Philippines. That’s on top of other partnerships in India, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Indonesia. The idea of Express Wi-Fi is to work with internet providers and mobile operators to help them build their Wi-Fi businesses and to give local entrepreneurs the tools to provide internet access to their neighbors.
As far as open-source projects go, Facebook also today announced the launch of Magma, a new open-source platform that makes mobile network deployments easier for carriers. The launch partner for Magma is Telefonica, which is using it in Latin America, and BRCK, which is using it to pilot a new LTE network in Kenya.
Terragraph, one of the company’s most successful open-source infrastructure projects that helps bring high-speed connectivity to urban and suburban communities, is now seeing new trials in Athens, Greece and Curitiba, Brazil and it’s already in production usage in Canon, Ohio and Penang, Malaysia, as well as Alameda, California.
Those are still small-scale projects, though, even if the local impact is huge. What’s maybe more important, though, is that it’s seeing increased support from hardware vendors, which now include MikroTik and Cambium Networks, in addition to Nokia and Radwin, which previously came on board.
One thing Maguire also noted is that Facebook remains as committed to these infrastructure projects as it has ever been. “We are trying to make sure we are learning and reflecting on everything that is happening and it’s important that we understand the role we play in all of this, but it’s super important and tied to the mission of what we do,” he said.