Facebook and Qualcomm Partner to Bring High-Speed Wi-Fi to Major Cities

The two tech companies will test "fiber in the sky," a lightning-speed Wi-Fi technology seeking to bring high-speed Internet into highly populated cities.

by Mike Freeman, The San Diego Union-Tribune / May 23, 2018
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(TNS) — Qualcomm is teaming up with Facebook to test “fiber in the sky” Wi-Fi technology that aims to bring high-speed Internet to big cities.

The two tech companies announced the joint effort Monday. Called Terragraph, Facebook’s mesh network technology already has two announced field trials in Europe. Tests are expected to begin in partnership with Qualcomm in the U.S. next year.

The cities where the testing will occur have not been disclosed, and there could be significant technical and practical hurdles to successfully getting the Terragraph system to work.

Those roadblocks include the use of an airwave frequency with very short range, which means hordes of small cell boxes would need to be mounted on city light poles, stoplights and other infrastructure to power the system.

But if Qualcomm and Facebook can pull it off, the technology could deliver significantly higher bandwidth via Wi-Fi — perhaps as fast as 10 gigabits per second at peak speeds.

And that fiber-like broadband could be rolled out without ripping up streets to extend fiber-optic lines to apartments, condos and office buildings in dense urban areas.

“With Terragraph, our goal is to enable people living in urban areas to access high-quality connectivity that can help create new opportunities and strengthen communities,” said Yael Maguire, vice president of connectivity with Facebook.

Facebook first began talking about the Terragraph technology in 2016. The companies say the system can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of fiber build-outs.

The technology is complicated. But it taps 60 gigahertz unlicensed airwaves — know as millimeter wave — to bring high speed Internet to big cities.

(Wi-Fi operates in unlicensed, shared spectrum bands, while cellular runs in secure, licensed bands purchased in government auctions.)

Millimeter wave spectrum can deliver a lot of data fast. But it’s prone to interference and doesn’t travel very far — only a few hundred feet at best — before degrading. It needs to be within line of sight of devices, small cells and access points.

The Terragraph system would use advanced and future generations of Wi-Fi standards to generate uber-fast speeds. Qualcomm is producing the chips and software to enable outdoor operation and avoid interference.

“Our collaboration with Facebook will bring advanced 11ad and pre-11ay technologies to market, increasing broadband penetration and enabling operators to reduce their capital expenses for last-mile access,” said Irvind Ghai, a vice president with Qualcomm Atheros.

Fixed wireless broadband has been around for years. Companies such as Webpass deploy the technology to deliver Internet to homes and condos in certain neighborhoods. Bandwidth comes from a fiber-connected tower. It is beamed to line-of-sight antennas mounted atop multi-family buildings.

New 5G networks also will roll out fixed broadband products using licensed millimeter wave spectrum to bridge the last-mile gap between the fiber-optic backbone in major streets and individual homes.

Verizon, for example, expects its fixed wireless residential broadband service to launch in the second half of this year.

The Carmel Group, an industry research firm, estimates that the total number of subscribers for the U.S. fixed wireless broadband will reach 8 million by 2021, up from 4 million in 2016. Industry revenues are expected to nearly double from $2.3 billion to more than $5.2 billion.

“Based on a wealth of new data, The Carmel Group rates the Broadband Wireless Access industry’s growth prospects as stronger than those of cable, fiber, and satellite TV,” said Jimmy Schaeffler of The Carmel Group. “Optimism is in short supply in today’s pay TV and broadband markets, so the fixed wireless industry is an exciting success story.”

Qualcomm and Facebook are testing a mesh network to provide millimeter wave Wi-Fi using unlicensed airwaves, not last-mile wireless broadband to individual homes.

Still, the technologies are similar, and small cell deployments are expected to be critical to powering millimeter wave licensed spectrum build-outs that will be part of upcoming 5G mobile networks.

Qualcomm also announced Monday a 5G “new radio” chip for small cells using licensed millimeter wave spectrum.

“There are licensed and unlicensed approaches,” said Jesse Burke, a product marketing manager at Qualcomm. “The point is our customers are looking for increasing capacity. There are various approaches in both the licenses and unlicensed bands, and we are providing solutions, along with our customers.”

©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.