Partnerships play a vital role in rural wireless deployment initiatives worldwide, according to Dan Rabinovitsj, vice president of connectivity at Facebook. For example, he said, Facebook has partnerships with three carriers across 17 African countries, providing the Free Basics app that allows a user to connect to Facebook and other websites for free using a SIM card from a qualifying mobile operator.
“We can’t do any of this by ourselves,” Rabinovitsj said. “We are very partner-centric on all of our activities, from OEMs to carriers, systems integrators and tower companies.”
According to Rabinovitsj, in 2018 Facebook formed the umbrella organization Facebook Connectivity to add the next billion users onto the internet with partners to upgrade existing networks, build new networks in under-connected regions and make use of new technologies, tools and programs.
Rabinovitsj’s comments, which came on the second day of the Wireless Infrastructure Association’s Connectivity Expo last month in Orlando, Florida, sounded similar to statements made during the session Investment Insights by Marc Ganzi, CEO and cofounder of Digital Bridge.
“Over the next 10 years, partnerships are a must,” Ganzi said. “You are going to be doing business with your competitors. It will be a new era. Frenemies will be a part of your business strategy. We cannot build 5G in silos.”
Rabinovitsj noted that Facebook Connectivity is not interested in becoming a carrier and selling to consumers, but instead it wants to support carriers. He said usage in developing countries is growing, but ARPU and revenue are falling revenues. He envisions a scenario in which developed countries experience much higher data rates and rural areas actually see their data rates drop.
“We care about connectivity and the health of the mobile ecosystem,” Rabinovitsj said. “Our [internet] business depends on it. We are riding on top of the mobile operators and on top of the mobile infrastructure. We care about keeping those ecosystems healthy.”
Facebook Connectivity is innovating its business model and working with other companies through sharing assets, such as fiber, and running networks as a service, the Facebook executive said.
“We are building out a lot of fiber,” Rabinovitsj said. “What is critical here is, in some cases, we are using these fiber builds for our own data centers to serve our connectivity needs and then we share access. Wherever we traverse, we are happy to sell excess capacity to our partners that are setting up wireless broadband networks.”
In Peru, Facebook Connectivity has partnered with Telefonica to extend mobile coverage in rural areas using new technologies and a new operating model, deploying high-speed mobile internet to tens of thousands of Peruvians across the highlands and in the Amazonian rainforest, according to Rabinovitsj. He said they are upgrading 3,000 towers from 2G to 4G, and a second operator is coming on the network to share the assets, which will be be operated as a service. Telefonica also plans to test Facebook’s OpenCellular LTE RAN platform.
“We put together a new type of operator, working with Telefonica and international development banks and carving out tower assets and shared backhaul assets,” Rabinovitsj said. “Telefonica has the opportunity to make rural access affordable, because we are driving the costs out operationally so that it is profitable for the carriers. I think it is exactly an example of innovation we want to see in business models on how to operate networks.”
A joint trial with BT, Nokia and Cavium is set to demonstrate interoperability between the OpenCellular platform and the Nokia community-hosted network, Rabinovitsj said, enabling cloud-based remote auto-connection, configuration and monitoring of the OpenCellular base station in remote rural communities in the Scottish Highlands and the islands of Scotland.
Rabinovitsj said that Facebook Connectivity is collaborating on additional efforts to expand Wi-Fi connectivity, including partnerships focused on backhaul infrastructure with more than 10 Wi-Fi partners worldwide.
“We partnered with the Wi-Fi industry to form Express Wi-Fi in order to monetize Wi-Fi even in the lowest ARPU, most challenging areas,” Rabinovitsj said. “We are working with partners to make Wi-Fi affordable at a profitability over a long period of time.”
According to Rabinovitsj, Facebook Connectivity is studying how it can use millimeter-wave technology to extend fiber points of presence through the Terragraph Network, a 60 GHz, multi-node wireless system, backhauling the signal using an open-source Layer 3 routing protocol and a resilient mesh.
Deutsche Telekom is evaluating millimeter-wave technology use across Europe, according to Rabinovitsj said. He said that Magyar Telekom, a large Hungarian telecom company and a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, is planning to deploy a Terragraph field trial in the Budapest area. Additionally, Facebook Connectivity is partnering with Telenor to conduct a Terragraph production field trial in Kuala Lumpur.