The West is quick to pounce on Facebook for each and every infraction. However, here in Africa we have a little more reason to appreciate the social media giant. Facebook has spent a fortune trying to fix global connectivity challenges we face where billions are still cut off. The Facebook Connectivity division of the group has some interesting projects and technologies in the works.
The challenge in Africa is that most of those not yet connected to the internet earn very little. This means there is little financial incentive for internet providers to deploy the infrastructure to connect them. Business is done with profit as the main objective. Therefore capital expenditure will not be made where the return is uncertain even in the long term.
In most African countries, governments have to look at connectivity as a human right. Then launch publicly funded projects to reach those who won’t be reached otherwise. In Zimbabwe, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) had to create the Universal Service Fund to ensure the remote and sparsely populated places are not left behind.
As it is with almost all government projects, such programs are usually inefficient in their use of public funds. This is not helped by the complexity and high cost of the technological deployments we are talking about here.
If we are to rely on governments it will mean the timeline for progress will have to be talked about in centuries. Not decades. This is why companies like Facebook are a blessing here. They are investing billions of dollars to solve these problems. And are now starting to come up with technologies that could lower the cost of deployment for connectivity technologies.
Terragraph is a wireless technology that delivers the internet at fibre-like speeds and operates on the 60GHz band. There are latency speeds of 1ms per hop.
This technology is cheaper to deploy than fibre and can also be deployed far quicker than fibre. Facebook says mere weeks can be enough because the nodes that are used in the network can be mounted on existing street infrastructure e.g. rooftops, sides of buildings, traffic light poles or tower lights.
There is no need to dig and lay fibre to bridge the last mile. That is the reason this wireless technology is cheaper. The cost and time needed to get right of way permissions for wireline services is also not a factor for Terragraph technology. Property owners do not own the air through which the internet is delivered by Terragraph.
The other benefit is that the mesh of nodes that deliver the internet is highly scalable and so the upfront cost can be quite low. Initial deployment can have few nodes and additional nodes can be added as demand increases. The link distance for peak rates is 150m.
There’s more. Like all mesh networks with multiple nodes this Terragraph will be more resilient than wireline services like terrestrial fibre. This is because in a mesh network, the internet has multiple routes it can travel through. If one node malfunctions, the data packets for the Bustop Tv clip you want to watch will just use a different node to get to you.
This is unlike with fibre lines which have a single point of failure. Someone digging for mice could cut an entire neighbourhood off from the internet with one stroke to the wire. Furthermore, finding that point where the wire was cut is more time consuming and expensive than locating a malfunctioning node.
Facebook says the end user can expect a downlink data throughput of 1Gbps. Contrast that with the theoretical maximum throughput for LTE which, depending on the channel bandwidth, can deliver at 300Mbps in best case scenarios.
Even Zimbabweans with LTE access in urban areas would welcome the Terragraph technology. The technology has been deployed in a number of locations worldwide and appears to be performing well in Alaska and deployment is underway in Hungary and Australia.
What do you think about Terragraph? Should Zimbabwean operators be looking to licence Terragraph? After all, Facebook says they licence it for free so service providers can focus on deployment and not R&D. Of course Facebook is not being philanthropic but is rather looking to grow the pool of potential users for its services. Should that distract from the technology? I think not.
If this sounds good you might want to read about Project Taara which is another wireless solution delivering internet at fibre-like speeds. Alphabet subsidiary X and Liquid partnered on this one and deployed it in the DRC where they served 700TB in just 20 days across the Congo river with a 99.9% uptime.
This connectivity problem just might be solved in our lifetime.
We shall discuss the other work Facebook is doing to solve the connectivity problem in future articles.