For Facebook Connectivity, Success Comes With Scale


By Sean Kinney

A primary goal of Facebook the company is to get more people to use Facebook the social media platform–posting photos, engaging with friends and otherwise creating a monetizable data profile. One of the limiting factors of adding more active users to the platform is availability of reliable broadband, a particularly common issue in emerging markets. Given this paradigm, Facebook Connectivity invests in R&D and ecosystem development for new network infrastructure technologies–invest today in reshaping network economics and benefit tomorrow from new users newly connected to the internet.

Notable among Facebook Connectivity’s various initiatives are Terragraph, focused on using the unlicensed 60 GHz band to deliver fiber-like speeds in urban and suburban areas at a lower cost than running fiber-to-the premises, and participation via the Telecom Infra Project in opening up  radio access network infrastructure. Facebook Connectivity Vice President Dan Rabinovitsj discussed with RCR Wireless News how the company gauges success in its network infrastructure work and the confluence of factors that has brought open RAN to the forefront of telecom industry discourse.

The unlicensed 60 GHz band has been used for WiGig, a high-capacity, short-range flavor of Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11ad evolving to 802.11ay) that could be used for creating a super Wi-Fi hot spot for things like untethered virtual reality. On the cellular side, the 3GPP is considering extending the 5G New Radio specification to the millimeter wave band but, for now, is focused on so-called NR-U for 5 GHz and 6 GHz. For Facebook Connectivity, 60 GHz represents an opportunity to deliver fiber-like wireless speeds at a much more favorable and attainable price point.

Terragraph has several “lighthouse projects,” as Rabinovitsj called them, “that we’re using right now to guide the rest of the industry to look at what a commercial deployment looks like using unlicensed 60 GHz technology.” Common Networks is using Terragraph to deliver fixed wireless broadband to residential units in Alamdea, California; in Puerto Rico, AeroNet is trialing Terragraph to deliver gigabit internet wirelessly in Old San Juan; and Malaysia’s YTL Communications, beginning with a trial in George Town, Penang, is using Terragraph to distribute signal to Wi-Fi hot spots and has recorded downlink speeds in the 170 Mbps range, according to published reports.

Rabinovitsj said, in 2020, it’s all about commercial Terragraph deployments. “Almost everything we do in Facebook Connectivity is focused on getting more people online to a faster internet. There is a strategic business rationale to the company. It’s kind of like the top of the funnel for all the Facebook properties. The other big piece of that is onto a faster internet. We see globally that actually internet speeds are going to decline” due to limited infrastructure capex and capacity limitations caused by network saturation. “Terragraph is actually meant to be a technology that can help to reverse that because it’s providing an affordable way to increase speeds.”

Evenstar–lighting the way to an open RAN

2020 is poised to be a big year for open RAN, both in terms of general market warming as well in terms of specific developments in the quickly growing ecosystem of stakeholders and interoperability contributors. Rakuten, which built a greenfield, cloud-native network in Japan, is the hottest thing in telecom; Sen. Mark Warner is all for open RAN as a guard against Chinese network infrastructure vendors; Attorney General William Barr is opposed and wants a seemingly unrealistic market machination to create a global-scale, U.S.-based equipment vendor. And some of the biggest operators in the game are exploring open RAN as they embark on multi-year, multi-national upgrades to LTE and for 5G.

A little more than four years ago, Facebook became a founding member of the Telecom Infra Project, which has since morphed into an encompassing, thriving community of operators and vendors working to develop standardized, interoperability mechanisms for virtually all parts of telecom networks. Facebook Connectivity is a major contributor and recently announced with partners Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, MTI and Ace Axis, the Evenstar remote radio unit. The goal is “general-purpose RAN reference designs for 4G/5G networks in the Open RAN ecosystem that are aligned with 3GPP and O-RAN Alliance specifications,” TIP Executive Director Attillo Zani wrote in a blog.  “By decoupling the RRU hardware, [distributed unit]and [central unit]software, mobile network operators will have the ability to select best-of-breed components and the flexibility to deploy solutions from an increasing number of technology partners.”

Noting the variety of factors contributing to open RAN momentum, as well as moves to disaggregate core and transport networks, Rabinovitsj said the mobile ecosystem, “and I would say operator-led right now,

[is reconsidering]

what it means to have a robust and reliable supply chain. In a lot of ways, parts of the industry got lazy because the incumbent vendors were able to do an end-to-end solution for the service provider. But the downside of that is a lot of those operators don’t have the control knobs they want on containing opex or managing performance or a lot of the things you would say are very core to running a network. I think that journey has kind of been underway for some time. When you really look at it, you have to start disaggregating pieces of the network to basically get control of them again.”

Back to Rakuten Mobile, the subsidiary of e-commerce powerhouse Rakuten is prepping to launch LTE services in April on top of a virtualized, de-centralized, 5G-ready network. CTO Tareq Amin, who previously oversaw the greenfield build in India of Reliance Jio’s massive LTE network, worked with vendors, including Airspan, Altiostar, Nokia and Qualcomm, for the Japan build. In a recent press event, Amin said this type of open network architecture equates to 40% lower capex and 30% lower opex.

“Telco networks of today are very complex no matter what the Gs are,” he said. “It has no software-centricity; it’s all about hardware migration as you go from one generation to the other. If you look at our architecture, our architecture today is truly the world’s first open RAN deployment today across any telco. It is running at scale. It is absolutely real.”

Rabinovitsj said Rakuten Mobile has done an “amazing job” of evangelizing the benefits of virtualized networks and in driving open RAN forward. “They made it a requirement that erstwhile competitors needed to get together to collaborate, to build a solution for Rakuten. In a way, that’s an extremely important contribution to the whole industry. He also called out Vodafone’s and Telefonica’s public commitment to open RAN in the context of the projected number of radios they will collectively purchase over the next five years.

He said, in terms of RAN and telco network transformation, it’s “one of the most exciting times to be in this market and watching what’s going on.” -

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