Marek’s Take: Facebook’s Terragraph is bridging the last mile gap in Alaska

Marek's take

Facebook is in the hot seat right now. The company suffered a massive outage earlier this week and it is also in the midst of defending its business after being hit with claims from a former product manager that the company prioritizes profit over consumer safety. Both of these issues are huge black eyes for Facebook, which is now working hard on damage control.

During a media call earlier this week to talk about Facebook Connectivity, and not the outage or the company’s business model, Mike Shroepfer, Facebook’s CTO, addressed the outage briefly by saying that the company understands that it provides an essential communications platform for people and the outage was a reminder of how important Facebook Connectivity’s work is.

If you aren’t familiar with Facebook Connectivity, it is part of Facebook that is tasked with working on technologies and partnerships with the goal of bringing the internet to more people around the world. You might recall that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg first talked about the company’s vision for pervasive connectivity back in 2014 when he was the keynote speaker at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

That was also the year Facebook created the Connectivity Lab and started exploring different technologies to make the company’s vision of connectivity feasible — from drones to satellites and free space optics.

The group, which is now headed by Dan Rabinovitsj, VP of Connectivity, is working on a handful of technologies. Rabinovitsj, who has worked for a number of wireless firms including Ruckus Networks, Atheros and Qualcomm, noted that about 3 billion people around the world still lack access to the internet, and for many it is still too expensive.

One Facebook-led initiative that is relevant to wireless operators in the U.S. is Terragraph, a technology that is designed to bridge the last mile gap between the subscriber and the service provider’s closest fiber node.  
Terragraph is a fixed wireless service that delivers multi-gigabit-speed data using 60 GHz unlicensed millimeter wave spectrum. Facebook licenses the Terragraph technology for free and has several manufacturers that make Terragraph equipment including Cambium Networks, Siklu and Radwin. According to Facebook, these manufacturing partners have shipped more than 30,000 Terragraph units to more than 100 service providers and systems integrators around the world.

Terragraph works by using its transmitters, which are typically deployed on street lights or rooftops, to create a distributed network. It can extend a fiber network wirelessly through these nodes to provide last mile connectivity.

Delivering that last mile

In the U.S., Alaska Communications has deployed Terragraph using Cambium equipment and is delivering high-speed internet with speeds up to 1 Gbps to more than 6,500 homes in Anchorage.

The service, which is called AKXinternet, requires installation of a small radio on the rooftop of a home, plus interior wiring to connect the radio to the modem and then the network must be configured. On its web site, Alaska estimates that this will take about two hours to complete an installation. Installation is free but AKXinternet’s rate plans run from $70 per month for up to 100 Mbps download speeds to $170 per month for 1-Gbps download speeds.

Alaska’s biggest competitor, GCI, charges a slightly higher rate of $74 per month for a plan that offers up to 100 Mbps download speeds and $174 per month for its 1-Gbps plan.

According to Rick Benken, VP of network strategy and engineering at Alaska Communications, the company needed a solution for last mile connectivity that wasn’t fiber. “Our fiber build system is only five to six months because of the harsh conditions,” Benken explained, which makes it difficult to satisfy customer demand. Those harsh conditions include rugged terrain and temperatures that can drop as low as -40 degrees.

Benken described Terragraph as a “game changer,” noting that customers have been very positive about the product and have described the broadband speeds that they are getting while using it as “lightning fast.”

Signals Research Group recently conducted tests of Terragraph at Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, California, and found that the technology was impressive, particularly its low latency.

Benken added that Alaska Communications plans to expand its use of Terragraph to more markets. The carrier was just acquired by an entity owned by ATN International and Freedom 3 Capital for $332 million in an all-cash deal.

Alaska’s experience with Terragraph so far has been positive and there are other service providers that are using the technology. Puerto Rican operator AeroNet is piloting the technology in Old San Juan. And Common Networks in Alameda, California, deployed Terragraph using gear from Peregrine.  

In addition, the City of San Jose, California, is deploying Cambium Networks gear using Terragraph technology for its public Wi-Fi network in the downtown area as part of its Smart City Vision.

With the lengthy installation process, I’m skeptical about Terragraph’s ability to generate traction with service providers, unless they have a good FWA business case. However, the solution seems to be a good fit for WISPs, especially if it can deliver 1-Gbps speeds in areas where fiber is non-existent.