Facebook has been installing wireless "nodes" on poles throughout San Jose as part of a pilot to test technology to bring gigabit-speed Internet to large cities.
(TNS) –– San Jose and Facebook last year set an ambitious goal: Together, they would bring free gigabit-speed Internet to the city’s downtown public.
More than a year later, that dream is still far from reality.
While Silicon Valley seems like a natural laboratory, the pilot project — which Facebook calls Terragraph — underscores the challenges that cities face in rolling out experimental technology.
“The end result could be anywhere from ‘it doesn’t work at all’ to ‘this is the best thing since sliced bread,’?” said Kip Harkness, San Jose’s deputy city manager for civic innovation and digital strategy. “But we’re not at a point where we can determine where we are going to fall in that spectrum.”
When Facebook and San Jose unveiled the project, the mayor’s office said a “publicly accessible gigabit-speed outdoor Wi-Fi network” would be deployed in late 2016.
Now, officials for the tech firm and the city aren’t saying when the public will get to try out the high-speed Internet or precisely how fast it will be, noting there’s more work to do. Facebook is still testing Terragraph, a wireless system to help deliver high-speed Internet in large cities.
Facebook started testing an early version of the technology at its Menlo Park headquarters, but San Jose was the first city tapped for a broader trial.
“Developing next-generation technology takes a lot of testing and iteration, and Terragraph is no exception,” Facebook said in a statement. “While this is still an early test — and there is more testing to do before we’re ready to contribute this technology to the wider ecosystem — we are encouraged by our progress so far.”
If the pilot succeeds, San Jose leaders hope the city will become the home of one of the world’s fastest municipal Wi-Fi networks. Facebook claims that Terragraph is cheaper than using fiber-optic cables and that it could open up high-speed Internet access worldwide, including to people with low incomes.
“Facebook is a company that will make money if people are on the Internet constantly, and so they’re trying to find a way to get around the cable and telecom company monopoly without going directly to war with them,” said Christopher Mitchell, a community broadband expert at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
But city e-mail and documents obtained by this news organization also show the Terragraph project faced numerous challenges in its first year, slowing its implementation.
In 2016, Harkness outlined in a one-page document to city officials some of the reasons for the delays: The project’s hardware was not finalized. There were personnel changes on the project’s team. Questions remained about resources and how to approach community benefits.
“The City and Facebook have not executed on the Terragraph project as rapidly as desired,” the document stated.
Other issues popped up, including whether Facebook or the city would pay for certain equipment.
Ed Kim, San Jose’s enterprise technology manager, raised some of these concerns with the city’s Chief Information Officer Rob Lloyd.
“FYI, in my last meeting with FB and SmartWave, they were asking for additional 10 Gig switches that they were under the understanding that we were going to provide,” he wrote to Lloyd in November 2016. “We don’t have any budget for these 10 Gig switches, nor were they ever offered by the city, as far as I am aware.”
SmartWave Technologies, a subcontractor for the project, mentioned to city officials in December 2016 that Facebook owed the company about $930,000 for its work, but was disputing about $26,000 and withholding the entire amount. Facebook argued that the company didn’t perform any work after Nov. 23, 2016, the SmartWave e-mail said.
Facebook has been mounting devices known as “nodes” on about 250 light poles throughout the city. These devices have been placed near Diridon Station and extend to 10th Street, covering popular tourist areas such as the SAP Center and museums, according to a map shown in an October 2017 city meeting.
These nodes use extremely high frequency radio waves to transmit large volumes of data. But the 60-gigahertz signal that Terragraph uses can’t travel far because oxygen and water easily absorb these waves, which is why Facebook places these nodes up to 820 feet apart.
Mounting devices onto poles takes a lot of time. The city has to make sure that the nodes are attached safely and the traffic lights work properly afterward, Harkness said.
Other technical issues popped up. In August 2017, Facebook told the city’s IT department it couldn’t reach some of the nodes on the network because a fiber connection was down at city hall. That problem was fixed.
Despite these hurdles, Facebook and the city remain optimistic the project is headed in the right direction.
The tech firm doesn’t intend to sell Terragraph as a service or product, but plans to make the hardware and software open to mobile operators. San Jose could use Terragraph to speed up its public Wi-Fi network if the testing is successful, but officials also are grappling with what role the city should play as an Internet service provider.
In 2013, the city launched the “Wickedly Fast Wi-Fi” network with SmartWave Technologies and Ruckus Wireless. Today, that connection can be slow or unavailable in parts of downtown.
Meanwhile, people are also doing more on their smartphones, such as playing augmented reality games and streaming live videos.
“The capacity of our downtown Wi-Fi no longer meets consumers’ expectations,” Harkness said. “If we’re successful in this experiment with Facebook, we’ll be able to stand this up and we’ll be able to stand down that old network.”
Brocade’s Ruckus Wireless said that there are various factors that can impact Internet speeds, including too many users trying to access the Wi-Fi network at once.
“While the city and SmartWave along with Ruckus have implemented a very robust network, that is something in our industry we know has to be continually refreshed and maintained,” said Bart Giordano, vice president of wired and wireless business development at Ruckus.
Worldwide, cities have raced to bring faster Internet service to the public as a way to fuel job growth and bridge the digital divide.
In San Jose, more than 12 percent of the city’s population — or more than 100,000 people — do not have Internet access at home, the city’s website says.
Facebook looked at extending the Terragraph network to two East San Jose neighborhoods — Meadowfair and TOCKNA (Tully, Ocala, Capital and King Neighborhood Association) — and a zone used to test transportation technology in north San Jose, city documents show.
It’s unclear, however, whether the network will be extended beyond the downtown.
Cisco has also talked to Facebook and city officials to explore how it might use the Terragraph technology elsewhere, such as in Dublin, Ireland and India, according to an e-mail between Cisco and the city.
“There’s a strong connection in rolling out broadband for everybody and the opportunity to make it more inclusive and break down those cost and affordability barriers,” said Dolan Beckel, San Jose’s smart city lead.
Other tech firms have struggled to bring high-speed Internet to cities. Last year, Google suspended plans to provide its super-fast Google Fiber Internet service in numerous cities, including San Jose.
Comcast and AT&T also offer up to 1-gigabit-per-second Internet for a price, but San Jose is trying to provide high-speed Internet for the public at no cost.
And some experts remain skeptical that Facebook’s Terragraph will cross the finish line.
“If it works and it’s open, it will be a game-changer,” Mitchell said. “But we’ve heard too many times that there is a magic solution just a few years away for wireless, and it hasn’t come to pass.”
©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.