Facebook and Qualcomm Team Up on Terragraph

Project Aims to Bring Fixed Wireless Access to Urban Areas in Mid-2019

On Monday, Facebook and Qualcomm announced a new partnership that aims to promote wireless networking using 60 GHz spectrum in urban areas as a fixed wireless solution. Facebook’s Terragraph technology — a millimetre-wave, multinode wireless backhaul system — will be at the core of the network, with Qualcomm bringing the hardware and backbone infrastructure to the partnership.

Facebook claims that Terragraph, which uses unlicensed spectrum, reduces congestion and improves Internet speeds at a “fraction of the cost” of fibre deployments. The company says that Terragraph is “a gigabit wireless network”, but intended to be used as a cable and fibre replacement, bringing down the costs of connecting areas by eliminating the need to string wires. Although this is described as a form of “air fibre”, it’s not a mobile solution.

Terragraph will use 802.11ay technology, the successor to the 802.11ad standard that debuted in 2016. This is generally considered to be a wireless backhaul technology, providing the “last mile” connection directly to homes. As 802.11ay signals travel short distances, the two companies have tweaked it with enhancements like massive antenna arrays, channel bonding, time-synchronized nodes and time-division multiple access protocols to get the signals past urban obstacles, serve more users and cut upfront costs.

The infrastructure could piggyback on existing structures. For example, street lamps in a downtown urban area could be fitted with Terragraph nodes. Each node would communicate with another, creating a mesh network in a city area.

We note that Facebook hasn’t clearly outlined its plans for Terragraph once it’s deployed, so the business model is uncertain. Will Facebook start its own Internet Service Provider business, similar to Google Fiber? Or will this be a zero-rated Internet connection that gives free access to Facebook and Facebook-approved sites, like its Free Basics programme in several countries? Given the shift in Net neutrality rules in the US, the latter is conceivable, but Facebook would risk political fall-out with changing administrations.

It’s difficult not to be somewhat sceptical about a wide roll-out of this technology in the most advanced broadband markets. Replacing existing wired infrastructure with a massive wireless deployment has been tried before. For example, we’re reminded of WiMax, which was hyped as the ultimate last-mile solution, but saw limited success partially because of the wide acceptance of LTE for 4G standardisation. In a similar fashion, Terragraph will be facing fixed wireless deployments of 5G, some of which will be starting in summer 2018.

Nonetheless, there are many areas in the West where telecom operators haven’t upgraded their old copper networks to fibre, such as villages in France, where Terragraph may find a market. There’s also a large opportunity in less-developed markets, where investment in cabled telecom services was overtaken by mobile and has never caught up to Western levels. From Qualcomm’s perspective, it’s a logical bet to integrate support into its pre-802.11ay chipsets, given the breadth of partner support. For Facebook, Qualcomm is a crucial partner that adds weight and heightens the chances of commercialisation.

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