How Facebook's Boston Office is Helping to Bring Wi-Fi to the World

October 17, 2018

How Facebook's Boston Office is Helping to Bring Wi-Fi to the World

There are more than 3.8 billion people in the world, who are still not connected to the internet and Facebook is looking to change this by deploying mesh Wi-Fi networks. This initiative involves teams of engineers across the U.S., Europe, and Israel.

We connected with the Boston team at Facebook to learn more about Express Wi-Fi and how this local office is contributing to the overall initiative.

The image above is a picture of Javier Cardona, a Facebook engineer, who is playing the soprano saxophone near an Express Wi-Fi hotspot in Tanzania to engage with the community and attract more people to try Express Wi-Fi.

What is the Express Wi-Fi project and how is it impacting the world?

More than 3.8 billion people in the world are still not connected to the internet. At Facebook, we're working to help change that by developing brand new technologies in partnership with equipment manufacturers and operators.

With Express Wi-Fi, we've been helping licensed local internet service providers, mobile operators and local entrepreneurs provide fast and affordable Wi-Fi to their communities in public places (i.e. hotspots). Express Wi-Fi enables internet service providers and mobile operators to provide internet to those who don’t have reliable or affordable access to it, while at the same time enabling local entrepreneur retailers to build a business of their own by selling pre-paid Wi-Fi connectivity to community residents.

Customers can purchase fast, reliable and affordable data packs via digital vouchers or cash to access the internet on the Express Wi-Fi network. Today, Express Wi-Fi is available within five countries — India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania.

But Wi-Fi networks can be hard to set up and expensive to deploy, especially when trying to cover an entire town, neighborhood, or village. For example, two major pain points for larger Wi-Fi networks are managing the many network devices and ensuring the network has adequate and reliable backhaul capacity to the broader internet. For example, some Wi-Fi mesh solutions require operators to individually specify which access points are able to connect with each other. Others require the careful alignment of antennas.

In early 2017, we started developing and testing some possible solutions to these problems by allowing multiple Wi-Fi access points to mesh with each other, exchange information and carry backhaul traffic — without requiring a separate physical backhaul connection at each place an operator might want to provide access. Mesh Wi-Fi technology has the potential to reduce costs for internet backhaul, enabling partners to deploy networks with up to fifty and potentially, even more, access points.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi network?

Wireless mesh networks contain two or more devices that work together to connect a given area — for example, a house, apartment or even a neighborhood. In a mesh network, network nodes can communicate with each other to reach the main gateway hub (known as a router) allowing for the best connection possible. With more traditional Wi-Fi setups, each network node must have its own backhaul connection or talk directly with the router. With self-organizing mesh Wi-Fi technology, only one backhaul connection is required for every 10-20 access points — this reduces the time and money needed to install equipment, which means operators can deploy more access points in more places.

How is the Boston team contributing to this project?

In Boston, our team has been developing software that simplifies network management for operators and enables them to deploy mesh Wi-Fi networks.

What are the backgrounds of the team in Boston?

Facebook Boston has grown to more than 100 employees and continues to play a central role in the development of a number of our global products and technologies, including the Express Wi-Fi project. Boston is a prime location to engineer Express Wi-Fi, as there's deep technical talent with strong networking expertise and incredible academic institutions with deep connectivity expertise. In fact, more than half of the team is based in Boston, including Ryan Mack, the engineering lead on the project, and Chris Marra, the project manager.

A project like this requires a lot of resources.  What other teams across the world are working on this project and what is each team tackling?

Along with the engineers in Boston, the team has grown to include engineers in the U.S., Europe and Israel. Teams in Menlo Park, California have been developing a new routing framework optimized for large scale Wi-Fi mesh networks, with up to 50 or potentially even more access points — using fewer backhaul connections. And Facebook engineering teams in Israel, Ireland and Dubai have been working with partners to plan and deploy Express Wi-Fi.

Is this technology in pilot or in production anywhere?

We're currently piloting this mesh technology with our Express Wi-Fi partner Habari Node in Tanzania. The pilot has enabled us to deploy an early version of this software using off-the-shelf hardware adapted to work in solar-powered enclosures. This is pushing the boundaries of what's possible for Wi-Fi networks. Our goal is to continue testing and validating the technology, and in the future, share our learnings with the broader industry.

Keith Cline is the Founder of VentureFizz.  Follow him on Twitter: @kcline6.

Cover image courtesy of Facebook.

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