Amid scandal, Facebook unveils efforts to offer fast internet access to billions

Israeli team in Tel Aviv leads Express Wi-Fi project meant to bring unconnected or under-connected people in developing world online

Ricky Ben-David is a Times of Israel editor and reporter

Workers install Facebook's Bombyx robot that moves along power lines, wrapping them with fiber cable, to roll out fiber-optic internet to communities. (Facebook)
Workers install Facebook's Bombyx robot that moves along power lines, wrapping them with fiber cable, to roll out fiber-optic internet to communities. (Facebook)

Facebook has unveiled some of its ongoing efforts to help billions of people in emerging markets access faster, more reliable internet connections worldwide, with key aspects developed in Israel at the social networking giant’s Tel Aviv R&D hub.

As part of the company’s Facebook Connectivity initiative first launched in 2013 to bring more people online, Facebook has been investing in building the physical infrastructure required to improve internet capacity and working to develop innovative connectivity technologies that could easily be deployed in areas where connections are poor, unstable, or expensive.

One of these developments is Express Wi-Fi, a software management platform conceived in Israel that helps mobile network operators deliver faster internet service through hotspots.

Limor Zellermayer, engineering manager at Facebook in Israel and product manager at Express Wifi, said in a briefing this week that the team is focused on bringing “unconnected” people online as part of Facebook’s mission to facilitate internet access for billions of people in developing countries and “bring the world closer together.”

“The internet is such a significant part of the way we live and work, but network connection technologies are struggling to keep up — and as a result, half of the world’s population is left behind, with insufficient internet access or no connection at all,” said Zellermayer in a separate statement.

“Our work in Israel focuses on working with network providers in developing countries to increase the availability of fast and affordable internet. This is a challenging and meaningful task, which will lay the foundations for a more connected world – and ensure that everyone can make the most of the economic, educational, and social opportunities that exist on the internet,” added Zellermayer, who is also a site lead for Facebook’s Tel Aviv hub, the largest such center outside the US.

Limor Zellermayer, engineering manager at Facebook in Israel and product manager at Express Wifi. (Facebook)

Zellermayer said the team works with operators on issues such as logistics and decision-making (i.e., where to deploy hotspots), and provides data-driven insights and recommendations. The service is available in over 30 countries including Indonesia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, Brazil, and Argentina.

So far, over 300 million people have access to faster internet with Facebook Connectivity, and the company said it is now working to “connect the next billion.” Overall, Facebook estimates that over 3 billion people worldwide live in areas with 3G+ networks but remain unconnected or under-connected.

The briefing was part of a major Facebook event this week dubbed “Inside the Lab” in which the company detailed how it has been expanding internet connectivity by sea, land, and air, and partnering with internet service providers (ISPs), operators, and local entrepreneurs for this project.

The event came at an awkward time for the company as it faced yet another scandal. For weeks, Facebook had kept mostly silent in the face of a Wall Street Journal series based on internal documents that allegedly highlighted a slew of wrongdoing and harmful practices. On Monday, the whistleblower who leaked the documents — revealed this week as former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen — gave a wide-ranging interview to CBS’s “60 Minutes” where she said the company prioritizes its own interests like making more money over the public good, fuels division, harms children and needs to be regulated. She followed this up with high-profile testimony to Congress the next day.

Former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen speaks during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

On Monday evening, a global six-hour outage took down Facebook, Instagram and messaging service WhatsApp, hitting potentially billions of users and highlighting global dependence on its services, Facebook blamed a configuration change and apologized.

The company also disputed some of Haugen’s claims, calling her “a former product manager who worked at the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said some of the allegations were “deeply illogical” and that company would “keep trying to do what’s right” and deliver “experiences that improve people’s lives.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks in New York, October 25, 2019. (AP/Mark Lennihan)

Expanded connectivity

It is this message that the company emphasized at its event on Wednesday, offering that better connectivity leads to better education, business and economic activity, and social impact.

“As people look for more immersive experiences… we need to increase access to a more reliable and affordable internet for everyone. We believe this work is fundamental for creating greater equity where everyone can benefit from the economic, education, and social benefits of a digitally connected world,” the company said.

Cynthia Perrett, Facebook’s Fiber Program manager, said in a separate briefing that the company has seen “that economies flourish when there is widely accessible internet for individuals and businesses In Nigeria, for instance, increased broadband connectivity resulted in a 7.8 percent increase in the likelihood of employment for people in areas connected to fiber optic cables. This means that for every 1 million people living in areas connected to fiber, an additional 78,000 people became employed. Or consider the Democratic Republic of Congo, where increased connectivity led to a 19 percent increase in GDP per capita ($789 vs. $663 at purchasing power parity).”

Facebook announced at its event Wednesday that it was working on its first-ever transatlantic subsea cable system, which will connect Europe to the US for “200X more internet capacity than the transatlantic cables of the 2000s,” as well as the extension of a new segment of subsea cable called 2Africa Pearls, which connects Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Facebook’s 2Africa project, the longest subsea cable system in the world connecting Africa, Europe and Asia. (Facebook)

The 2Africa subsea cable system will provide nearly three times the total network capacity of all the subsea cables serving Africa, Facebook said, adding that it is working to build more than 150,000 kilometers of subsea cables overall with its partners, as well as developing new technologies “that will enable floating, solar-powered buoys in the middle of the ocean to help these cables carry much greater volumes of data.”

Facebook also developed a robot called Bombyx to roll out fiber-optic internet to communities. Bombyx moves along power lines, wrapping them with fiber cable, and Facebook believes it could “have a radical effect on the economics of fiber deployment around the world.” The robot can cross a power line in under 4 minutes and the company is now working on making it autonomous.

Facebook’s Bombyx robot moves along power lines to wrap them with fiber cable. It is one of the company’s connectivity solutions to bring more people in the developing world online and provide them with fiber-optic internet. (Facebook)

With Terragraph, Facebook has sought to deliver on “last mile” connectivity with wireless technology that offers internet at fiber speed over the air. This tech has already brought high-speed internet to more than 6,500 homes in Anchorage, Alaska, and is being deployed in Perth, Australia.

Terragraph uses transmitters on street fixtures and rooftops to create a distributed network for high-speed reliable connectivity in homes and businesses, Facebook explained. It is faster to deploy than trenched fiber because it builds on existing fiber points and extends the capacity wirelessly, through nodes mounted on existing fixtures such as lamp posts and traffic lights.

An illustration of how Facebook’s Terragraph service works. It provides wireless technology that offers internet at fiber speed over the air. (Facebook)

“People are eager for even better ways to connect than what exists today, and there is still a lot to do to improve that digital experience,” said Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, in the statement.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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