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Facebook Talks to Via Satellite: “We Like to Move Fast and Break Things”

In 2015, Facebook was the talk of the satellite industry when it signed a landmark deal with Eutelsat and Spacecom to use capacity on Amos 6 to start connecting parts of Africa. One of the satellite industry’s biggest issues is attracting young talent; at a stroke, a company like Facebook, with all its bright young talents, has helped the overall perception of the satellite industry, making it immediately relevant to a newer generation. In some ways, it was one of the most important deals of the year.

I first met Ryan Wallace, Facebook’s technical program manager within Connectivity Deployments, at VSAT Global in London last year. In fact, I interviewed him on stage. Typically, he was on stage not in a suit, but dressed in uber casual West Coast style clothes, everything you would expect from a Facebook executive. Facebook is now a regular presence at satellite events and was again present at SATELLITE 2016. I had the opportunity recently to speak in depth to Wallace about Facebook’s ambitions in satellite.

He tells me that the genesis of Facebook moving into the satellite industry really started about two and a half years ago when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg set-up Internet.org, which was a complement to the original mission of Facebook to make the world more open and connected. Facebook made Africa the front stage for this mission. To look at that within Internet.org, Facebook formed a team called Connectivity Deployments, which Wallace is a key part of. The team uses the technology that is available today within both RF terrestrial, fiber and satellite technology to extend connectivity into these far to reach locations, by working with current players and extending their current availability. This team also works with the Connectivity Lab team, which develops new technologies such as solar powered planes.

“They are working on that and many other technology initiatives to really drive down the costs of bits and bytes to the end user. We see that as the future technology. We, within Connectivity Deployments, hope to use that technology in the future and use partners to push that technology,” says Wallace.

Satellite Aspirations

Spacecom and Eutelsat announced their agreement with Facebook in October 2015. Wallace says there was no question that satellite would be a key part of their plan. He says it was not a difficult decision to pick Eutelsat and Spacecom as partners either, but he admits it was hard to determine the process of how Facebook could best use satellites, particularly in Africa.

“We have a culture of moving fast. We say ‘move fast and break things.’ But it is more about moving fast and changing how things are being done so we can leverage new business models, new technologies, new ways of using existing technologies. To do that, and move fast, we needed capacity early on. There was an opportunity as Spacecom had Amos 6 built with capacity above Africa,” he says.

Of course, the satellite industry is going through an interesting time, as new constellations have been or will be launched in MEO or LEO, and as traditional GEO satellite operators adopt new technologies such as HTS payloads. I ask Wallace why Facebook decided to partner with a more “traditional” GEO offering for this and he says there were “a few good reasons” for the company to go down this route. He talks of the GEO operators “understanding the market” as they have been delivering services for many years. He also highlights the iteration of technologies from C-band to Ku to Ka, particularly within the GEO space, as an example of their innovation.

“The industry understands the greater bandwidth demands of the end consumer, which are primarily the businesses that are operating in these areas, but there are also consumer opportunities. GEO is a well-established technology and product for us to work with. Facebook, as a company and with its mission, is very open on technology and the backhaul technology, so we don’t necessarily lean toward GEO. It was about what gave us the fastest opportunity to bring connectivity to that region. HTS was great for this,” he says.

However, while giving GEO operators a ringing endorsement, he admits Facebook is very “backhaul agnostic,” and will continue to evaluate different technologies which provide this service. Wallace says Facebook’s key aim is to ensure that the technology is driven in the right way to enable low cost access to end consumers. “We are not necessarily just looking at the support for businesses that these constellations bring, but how we think about connecting the end consumer — the person that is unconnected in the town or village,” he adds.

With the Amos 6 satellite capacity Facebook wants to connect at least 11 countries, some of which are adjacent to each other, giving the company a few more opportunities. “We have a small team at Facebook, and we are expanding, but with that many countries, we are looking to work with partners in those countries to receive and develop that end connectivity. That is probably taking up a lot of the team’s time right now, but we hope that the learnings we get from that will help us do further work with satellite partners and look at other opportunities as we move further down the line,” says Wallace.

Express Wi-Fi

One of things that Facebook wants to bring to the equation is new business models that are sustainable in the long-term in Africa, as well as potentially in other regions. Wallace was in rural Indonesia recently, where Facebook has got a new product up and running called Express Wi-Fi. This is a product that enables local entrepreneurs to provide Wi-Fi access to their community. “One of the stories that was most interesting about that was that there are communities that are now using that access for both fishing and agriculture to gain information to enhance their livelihoods,” says Wallace. “They can improve what they are doing and become more profitable. They also understand better the costs of their products in terms of what they cost locally and what they cost in cities. Therefore, they are getting fairer prices for their products. So there is this definite need for connectivity and satellite plays into that in a big way, particularly when we go into the rural parts of Africa.”

Wallace says Facebook’s ‘Express Wi-Fi’ program was one of the key motivators as to why the company bought Amos 6 capacity. Facebook is building end-to-end software and enabling Internet Service Provider (ISP) and Mobile Network Operator (MNO) partners to provide and operate that software in conjunction with a local entrepreneur who provides Wi-Fi access to the local town or village. “What we are hoping is that through the use of Express Wi-Fi, they will understand the value of the Internet, but also they will see how successful this entrepreneur is and may want to set-up their own business to deliver Wi-Fi in their own town and community,” Wallace adds.

He believes Express Wi-Fi can grow in a similar way to how cable TV grew in India. Citing this example, Wallace talks about how you would have one person in their local village who would have their cable connectivity and then in a very entrepreneurial way would be connecting their friends and neighbors in their community.

“People got to understand the value of cable TV, so they wanted to get it themselves. They did not want to be reliant on one person’s connection. We are hoping that the same model will work for Internet connectivity. We think Express Wi-Fi is one of the key business models for that. So, from the satellite industry perspective, there is going to be an opportunity if the satellite industry can provide low-cost backhaul to the ISPs and the mobile operators looking to provide these very low-cost end products to the rural communities. I think there is a big play in the future for them there,” Wallace adds.

Ahead of the launch of Amos 6 in Africa, Facebook is ramping up to work with partners in all of these countries, developing project plans and proposals to deploy Express Wi-Fi.

Is Asia Next?

It is natural to wonder whether Facebook could also use satellite in Asia. Given that Wallace cites Indonesia as an example of where its Express Wi-Fi service could make a difference, and highlights the cable TV business model in India, I wonder if Asia is a natural next step for Facebook when it looks to satellite.

“You can say we are targeting Asia right now under our Internet.org initiative with Free Basics. We are already live in India and Indonesia with Express Wi-Fi. If you look at Myanmar as a great example that has got poor fiber infrastructure so satellite would probably be an interesting play there. The Philippines is an island nation, so fiber is very much within the metropolitan areas. Satellite could be a big play there. There is no real secret as to where satellite’s strengths are. It would be a [Business to Consumer] B2C solution where there is very little connectivity to people. So, yes, it is absolutely about how we drive the team over the next few years into these communities and regions,” Wallace says.

Facebook is also working on a Telecom Infrastructure Project, working with partners to open source the technology that goes into accessing the 2G/3G/LTE cell tower ecosystem and it is trying to do that in a very similar way to the company’s Open Compute Project where it open sourced the technology required for scaling efficient and inexpensive data center infrastructure. “We are trying to drive down those costs in those ways so we can make it more competitive for industries to enable connectivity. That was a big change. People can now build out networks in the future at a much lower cost, which will again support the satellite industry, as they will lead to increased requirements for capacity, now and in the future. We see a lot of our technical innovations to support the backhaul providers within the various different countries of the world,” Wallace says.

Learnings

There is little doubt that Facebook entering into Africa creates a buzz and excitement that few companies could match; there are already a myriad of learnings. One of the keys for Facebook is getting people to understand exactly what the Internet is.

“When Facebook goes into these rural areas like Tanzania or Madagascar, for example, and you ask people if they use the Internet, they will often say no, but if you ask if they use Facebook or WhatsApp, they will say yes. While it is great they use the product, there is this lack of understanding of the value of the Internet and what the Internet can bring,” says Wallace.

“Facebook can help the satellite industry by increasing the demand within those areas through the outreach projects that we are doing, through the business development models that we are bringing, as well as using new technologies that will increase capacity requirements.”

Wallace talks a lot about the value of the Internet. He speaks of ensuring people’s understanding of why they need to access the Internet and the value it can bring to their families through health and education, as well as to their businesses and even making whole communities thrive through social media, etc. “That has been an interesting learning point for how we need to develop our products, our resources and work with our partners to drive that message to these communities,” says Wallace

Bringing the costs of handsets down is an issue that needs to be addressed. Wallace admits the cost of a smartphone to access the Internet can actually be “very expensive.” “I bought a smartphone for around $35 six months ago in South Africa, and that is one of the cheapest I could find on the market anywhere. We just saw the announcement for the sub $4 phone in India, which is highly subsidized. It is great to see that there are these innovators that are looking to push the market forward. We hope to see similar pushes in the Africa as well,” he says. “The adoption of the smartphone means the easier adoption of the Internet. That means greater capacity requirements. That also means the satellite industry will have to serve those requirements.”

Africa remains a hugely exciting opportunity for companies to get involved when it comes to connectivity initiatives. Wallace talks about a recent experience listening to “Tech Tent” on the BBC recently, where they were talking specifically about Nigeria. “That is a country that has a huge population, but they are very unconnected. There is connectivity to the main city populations, but in Nigeria a lot of people live outside those dense urban environments. There is a big play for connectivity there. Africa has a huge population and the infrastructure is also getting a lot better in Africa. Roads are getting better, they are getting extended; telecommunications is getting extended. You have Keynesian economics, so when you build a road, theoretically the economy grows. I think that is happening right now in Africa,” he says. “Through the reduction in costs, and the delivery of cell towers and smart phones, there is a huge opportunity for the satellite industry to help provide access to unconnected people who are going to start to want smartphones and are going to start to want Internet access.”

Excitement

Wallace says huge technology companies like Facebook and Google are excited about the satellite industry and the way in which the technology has moved along. He specifically mentioned HTS being available now, which can provide higher capacity for those countries they have targeted. He believes satellite really fits the mission of these companies to expand connectivity and thus provide a momentum to work with those existing operators to provide connectivity.

“I really hope we will be working within the satellite sphere in different ways in the future. We want to see how it progresses. We want to work with current operators to see how we can improve new business models such as Express Wi-Fi to provide this consumer experience that they may not be offering today. So, we actually see opportunities to work with multiple partners in the future once we have proved some of the business models here. We want to provide new business opportunities for all of the new satellite players and maybe move away from some of their more traditional business models that they have been operating in the [Business to Business] B2B sphere,” says Wallace. VS