Facebook sets new records in millimeter-wave data transfers

Earlier this month, Facebook set three new records in wireless data transfer, including a record point-to-point data rate of 36 Gbps over 13 km.

Facebook has been tallying up the breakthroughs in millimeter-wave technology, declaring a number of firsts, and now it’s gone and set three new records in wireless data transfer.

Earlier this month, one of Facebook’s engineering teams demonstrated a record point-to-point data rate of 36 Gbps over 13 km with millimeter-wave technology, and 80 Gbps between those same points using its optical cross-link technology. “That's up to 4,000 ultra-high-definition videos simultaneously,” wrote Yael Maguire, director of the Connectivity Program at Facebook, in a blog post.

The team also used the technology to demonstrate 16 Gbps simultaneously in each direction from a location on the ground to a circling Cessna aircraft over 7 km away, modeling, for the first time, a real-life test of how this technology will be used.

Maguire says the technology is applicable to a number of Facebook's connectivity solutions, including as a terrestrial backhaul network to support access solutions like OpenCellular, Facebook’s open source software-defined wireless access platform aimed at improving connectivity in remote areas of the world.

Ultimately, the point-to-point millimeter-wave radio link is expected to serve as the connection between a ground station and Aquila, Facebook’s solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle, which had its first test flight last year and will be undergoing further flight testing in 2017.  

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In San Jose, California, Facebook has worked with the city to launch a first-of-its-kind at-scale deployment to test its system's capabilities in the city's downtown corridor. “To figure out where to place the nodes, we worked with our computer vision team to run tests of images in San Jose to understand both where we can potentially mount a millimeter-wave (MMW) radio, and where our lines-of-sight are,” Maguire wrote. 

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Facebook is also tackling some problems in the notoriously challenging 60 GHz band, where it applied its software and networking expertise to create software that routes around obstructions in a split second, so end users won’t notice a lapse in connection.  

“We knew going in that the 60 GHz channel this data is sent on presents its own challenges: If a tree grows leaves in front of a node, if a temporary construction project starts, or if any number of possible blockers obstruct our line-of-sight, the signal goes away,” Maguire explained, noting that with the software fix, “we reduce the failover rate to something so small, it's a blip—unnoticeable on human time scales.”

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Facebook has been busy working on ways to improve the way networks are designed. One of the ways it’s doing that is through the Telecom Infra Project, an engineering-focused initiative geared toward reimagining the traditional approach to building and deploying telecom network infrastructure.

One of Facebook's goals is to not only connect communities, but to connect them when they need it most. Toward that end, Facebook developed what it calls “Tether-tenna.” McGuire describes it as a small helicopter tethered to a fiber line and power—“essentially, insta-infrastructure.”

“If the fiber line is still good to a certain point, we can make a virtual tower by flying a Tether-tenna a few hundred feet from the ground,” he explained. “When completed, this technology will be able to be deployed immediately and operate for months at a time to bring back connectivity in case of an emergency—ensuring the local community can stay connected while the in-ground connectivity is under repair.”

It’s still early days in the development, and a lot of work is needed to ensure that it will be able to operate autonomously for months at a time, “but we're excited about the progress so far,” he said.

Last year, Facebook broke a MMW record while testing a terrestrial point-to-point link in Southern California: a record data rate of nearly 20 Gbps over 13 km. At that time, it was enough data to stream almost 1,000 ultrahigh-definition videos at the same time. Now, of course, it's broken its own world record, having demonstrated 36 Gbps.