San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo’s goal for the next four years is to make his city the most innovative in the world. To that end, the city announced on April 13 a partnership with Facebook Connectivity Lab (FCL) to build a public gigabit-speed Wi-Fi network in its downtown by the end of the year.
“We have embarked on a deliberate strategy to make San Jose a ‘demonstration city,’ that is, a platform for innovators who want to test, prototype and scale technologies with big impact. And this opportunity strongly aligns with that goal,” Liccardo told Government Technology. “We’ve got a very significant digital divide and thousands of families can’t afford Internet access, and their kids are having to find a way to get to the library to do their homework because they can’t get online. That’s a huge impediment for educational obtainment and economic opportunity for a generation of children. So this is a promising path to bridge that divide.”
FCL’s mission is to connect more people to the Internet by building partnerships around the world and developing new technologies that scale cheaply. Satellites, lasers and high-flying endurance aircraft are the group’s bread and butter, but in San Jose, the technology to be deployed is what Facebook calls Terragraph, an extremely high frequency (EHF) wireless system built using off-the-shelf components.
EHF signals travel by line-of-sight and can be disrupted by foliage or movement. Rain can degrade an EHF signal, even over short distances. An FCL spokesperson reported that Terragraph uses a phase array antenna to direct a network’s signal across a wide area and to maintain reliability.
“Given the architecture of the network, Terragraph is able to route and steer around interference typically found in dense urban environments, such as tall buildings or Internet congestion due to high user traffic,” the spokesperson said. “So far, we have demonstrated 1.05 Gbps bidirectional … in P2P mode, up to 250 meters away. This means up to 8.4 Gbps of total traffic per installation point assuming four sectors, and we think this number can be as high as 12.8 Gbps in the future.”
Facebook is paying for the equipment, the software (Terragraph uses cloud-based software-defined networking to keep things running smoothly), and installation. A city spokesperson said the city’s only costs will be in the time spent managing the project.
Facebook was interested in building this solution for San Jose, according to a press release, because the city has an existing downtown Wi-Fi infrastructure and because the city was willing to provide the group with access to its equipment. San Jose will be one of FCL’s first examples of how Terragraph might be used to cheaply scale high-bandwidth wireless connectivity for a high volume of users.
Turning the city into a “demonstration city” is a multifaceted effort, Liccardo explained. Being in the middle of Silicon Valley helps, as does fostering relationships with neighboring technologists, but it’s a particular approach to governance and external partnership that makes projects like this possible, he said.
“It’s a strong message that we’re willing to take risks with our entrepreneurial community because we know that’s critical for progress,” said Liccardo . “That means we will make our streetscape and our city buildings available for companies that are interested in demonstrating what they can do to help us do everything from helping us reduce greenhouse gas emissions to addressing traffic congestion. It requires first, a willingness to invest staff time to help folks deal with all of the logistics. … I think also it really requires a willingness to get out of the way, because like all cities, San Jose can always find ways to say no, and it’s critical to look for opportunities to say yes.”
To the private sector and to the tech sector in particular, government doesn’t always appear an affable character, Liccardo said, so it’s critical that they let the technology community understand that working with San Jose City Hall means entering a “user-friendly universe.”
This project will begin in the city’s downtown core, but the city and Facebook are considering expanding the equipment to reach some of the what the city calls its “underserved neighborhoods” and “transit innovation corridors.”
CIO Vijay Sammeta explained that this project has Facebook beefing up the equipment that the city already has installed.
“We’re going to plug all of our access points into the Terragraph equipment and then that equipment is going to plug into our wired infrastructure,” Sammeta said. “So, really, they’re increasing the backhaul capacity of our wireless network.”
Users concerned about their privacy and the possibility of their data being handed over to Facebook need not worry, he said, because the core infrastructure still belongs to the city.
“We’ll give them access to get things like statistics off the equipment that they’re testing, but it’s our network, so we’ll control all of those pieces,” said Sammeta, adding that in the 1.5 square miles where the network is deployed today, the city typically sees between 2,500 and 3,000 users per day.
“Last week, most of the week there was upwards of 7,000 people using it, so it ebbs and flows,” he said. “But I think we were ready for an upgrade and they came along, … so kind of a marriage made in heaven, for the IT director at least.”