Facebook’s Gigabit WiFi Experiment

Facebook and the city of San Jose, California have been trying for several years to launch a gigabit wireless WiFi network in the downtown area of the city. Branded as Terragraph, the Facebook technology is a deployment of 60 GHz WiFi hotspots that promises data speeds as fast as a gigabit. This delays in the project are a good example of the challenges of launching a new technology and is a warning to anybody working on the cutting edge.

The network was first slated to launch by the end of 2016, but is now over a year late. The City or Facebook won’t commit on when the network will be launched, and they are also no longer making any guarantees of the speeds that will be achieved.

This delayed launch highlights many of the problems faced by a first-generation technology. Facebook first tested an early version of the technology on their Menlo Park campus, but has been having problems making it work in a real-life deployment. The deployment on light and traffic poles has gone much slower than anticipated, and Facebook is having to spend time after each deployment to make sure that traffic lights still work properly.

There are also business factors affecting the launch. Facebook has had turnover on the Terragraph team. The company has also gotten into a dispute over payments with an installation vendor. It’s not unusual to have business-related delays on a first-generation technology launch since the development team is generally tiny and subject to disruption and the distribution and vendor chains are usually not solidified. There is also some disagreement between the City and Facebook on who pays for the core electronics supporting the network.

Facebook had touted that the network would be significantly less expensive than deploying fiber. But the 60 GHz spectrum gets absorbed by oxygen and water vapor, so Facebook is having to deploy transmitters no more than 820 feet apart – a dense network deployment. Without fiber feeding each transmitter the backhaul is being done using wireless spectrum, which is likely to be contributing to the complication of the deployment as well as the lower expected data speeds.

For now, this deployment is in the downtown area and involves 250 pole-mounted nodes to serve a heavy-traffic business district which also sees numerous tourists. The City hopes to eventually find a way to deploy the technology citywide since 12% of the households in the City don’t currently have broadband access – mostly attributed to affordability. The City was hoping to get Google Fiber, but Google canceled plans last year to build in the City.

Facebook says they are still hopeful that they can make the technology work as planned, but that there is still more testing and research needed. At this point there is no specific planned launch date.

This experiment reminds me of other first-generation technology trials in the past. I recall several cities including Manassas, Virginia that deployed broadband over powerline. The technology never delivered speeds much greater than a few Mbps and never was commercially viable. I had several clients that nearly went bankrupt when trying to deploy point-to-point broadband using the LMDS spectrum. And I remember a number of failed trials to deploy citywide municipal WiFi, such as a disastrous trial in Philadelphia, and trials that fizzled in places like Annapolis, Maryland.

I’ve always cautioned my smaller clients to never be guinea pigs for a first-generation technology deployment. I can’t recall a time when a first-generation deployment did not come with scads of problems. I’ve seen clients suffer through first-generation deployments of all of the technologies that are now common – PON fiber, voice softswitches, IPTV, you name it. Vendors are always in a hurry to get a new technology to market and the first few ISPs that deploy a new technology have to suffer through all of the problems that crop up between a laboratory and a real-life deployment. The real victims of a first-generation deployment are often the customers using the network.

The San Jose trial won’t have all of the issues as are experienced by commercial ISPs since the service will be free to the public. But the City is not immune from the public spurning the technology if it doesn’t work as promised.

The problems experienced by this launch also provide a cautionary tale for the many 5G technology launches promised in 2018 and 2019. Every new launch is going to experience significant problems which is to be expected when a wireless technology bumps up against the myriad of issues experienced in a real-life deployment. If we have learned anything from the past, we can expect a few of the new launches to fizzle and die while a few of the new technologies and vendors will plow through the problems until the technology works as promised. But we’ve also learned that it’s not going to go smoothly and customers connected to an early 5G network can expect problems.

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