Facebook’s experiments in internet connectivity haven’t always gone well. But its latest innovation seems genuinely cool.
Facebook Connectivity announced Monday that it has developed a robot that can travel along power lines deploying a thin yet durable fiber-optic cable of Facebook’s own creation.
It claims that this system, which utilizes the electrical grid to build out internet infrastructure, will be cheaper than the existing methods of laying internet cables, particularly in developing countries. That contributes to Facebook Connectivity’s overall goal of increasing internet access.
Notably, Facebook won’t be providing the actual internet to people. Instead, it will be licensing the technology behind the robot and the cables to other companies, allowing them to provide services or partner with ISPs.
Its first non-exclusive royalty-free licensee is a company called NetEquity Networks. The companies expect to begin deploying and testing the tech next year.
Facebook notes that it “does not have a financial stake in NetEquity Networks and will not own or operate fiber networks deployed by them.” However, according to his LinkedIn profile, NetEquity founder Isfandiyar Shaheen was a consultant at Facebook, then became an entrepreneur-in-residence, which is when he founded the company.
So NetEquity appears to be a Facebook-incubated company, even if it's not Facebook-owned.
In addition to its partnership with NetEquity, Facebook also worked with “veteran cable designer" Wayne Kachmar to develop the cables, and ULC Robotics to build the robots. In a video, Jon Kuriloff, ULC Robotics’ research and development project manager, helpfully breaks down the components of the project, and what it means for internet deployment:
"There are really two central innovations. The first is that there’s an innovative fiber optic cable design that’s resistant to damage. The other central innovation is the robotics system, which will allow the fiber optic cable to be transported along medium voltage distribution lines. Marrying those two technologies enables you to run fiber in a way that couldn’t be done previously."
Watching the robot in action is pretty impressive. It does away with the heavy spools cable deployment usually relies on, instead using a horseshoe-shaped spool that's filled with one kilometer of fiber cable.
The robot rotates the spool around the electrical cables, leaving a spiral of internet wire in its wake, like a spider would with its web.
When it comes to an obstacle, the robot hoists itself above whatever’s blocking its path, and then keeps on unspooling on the other side. Pretty neat!
Facebook and NetEquity focused on using the electrical grid because they found that even in rural places, grid infrastructure was still abundant. By piggybacking on the towers and cables already in place, they can avoid having to build their own infrastructure, or laying cables underground. While they’ll still need to test to see what kind of human operating costs the process will incur, they expect that this method will make deployment cheaper — which could in turn theoretically mean savings for customers. Facebook announced this approach in a February 2020 blog post.
In the past, Facebook has experimented with a several internet access projects, with varying levels of success. In 2014, it announced an initiative using drones and lasers to beam the internet down from space. One drone crashed in 2016, and it ended the project altogether in 2018 — although it began working on a retooled vision in 2019.
It also has a free internet service called “Free Basics” that provides free internet access to some parts of the internet — notably, Facebook. When Facebook offered Free Basics to India, regulators and consumers declined the offer.
As many of these petered-out projects have shown, the biggest problem with Facebook’s connectivity endeavors is that they come from Facebook: some people just don’t trust the social media giant with their internet connection.