Facebook’s ‘Internet.org’ announcement two weeks ago caused quite a stir within the wireless community.
You don’t often see Ericsson and Nokia cooperating on such high profile projects. The different OBSAI and CPRI standards for remote radio head communication are good examples of the rivalry between these two giants (they couldn’t agree on a common standard for connecting remote radio heads to base stations).
And with MediaTek, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung as part of the project, one has to admit this makes for an impressive group. They are obviously going for something BIG here. But what is the Internet.org project exactly?
The commercial background
From Facebook’s press release: “Everything Facebook has done has been about giving all people around the world the power to connect,” Zuckerberg said. “There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy. Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it.”
This is very inspiring, but we all know these major players wouldn’t step in if there weren’t a solid business case. To better understand it, let’s look at the African market in more detail.
The growth of mobile telephony in Africa since the early 2000s is simply staggering, at three times the world’s average. Wikipedia cites a few technology-related aspects, such as limited fixed line networks, as the key drivers for this growth. This is certainly true, but population growth must also have something to do with it as well. This is where things get interesting because the population growth in Africa is not close to stopping. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of the Census predicts Africa will move from 13% to 22% of the total world population in 2050.
When such growth is present, it means that the population is also young. Young people in Africa are no different than kids and teenagers in the Americas or Europe; they define themselves by their social interactions, by belonging to a group.
Just imagine for a moment that you own a business that relies on young mobile users for success. Africa is a must for your business plan, hence Internet.org.
All the above being said, the attractiveness of the African market did not happen overnight – it has seen sustained growth for over ten years. So why launch this project now, in 2013?
Part of the answer lies in the three key challenges Facebook mentions that need to be addressed by Internet.org: making access affordable, using data more efficiently, and helping businesses drive access. As with everything, all three challenges rely heavily on innovations that offer cost-conscious solutions.
We’ve previously discussed in our blog the role that innovations play in fields like particle accelerators, nuclear medicine, and MIMO radar. From a consumer perspective, smart phones are another great example. It’s hard to infer from one sentence what Facebook means when they state ‘Partners will collaborate to develop and adopt technologies that make mobile connectivity more affordable and decrease the cost of delivering data to people worldwide‘. However, discussions with experts in our industry led us to believe the technological innovations required for this project to succeed will be centered around the following premise: Internet.org partners want and need future mobile phones to become Internet access points.
There is no roadmap or timeline on the Internet.org website, but turning mobiles into access points is quite a paradigm shift when you consider the current state of RF technologies and modulation algorithms. For example, Nutaq is still selling quite a lot of its GSM femto base stations to OEMs (yes, 2G in 2013) and from the knowledge we acquired in developing our 2×2 OFDM reference design, it is clear that this modulation is not ready for long range due to its reflection problems (although pricing for MIMO architectures dropped significantly over the last few years).
This being said, we at Nutaq are the first to admit that this is a very exciting idea; the kind of ideas that nobody knows when they will happen, but that we all know must happen. So why not now? Consider for a moment the lack of both landline data and power links all over Africa. Going 100% wireless for the infrastructure itself is definitely the ideal way to reach the population, and solar-powered mobile phone recharging stations are clearly less expensive to deploy than wireless infrastructure equipment.
In the meantime…
Since we are obviously still many years away from seeing such a mobile phone network being deployed, it makes sense to look at interim solutions that leverage longer range wired infrastructure technologies.
A highly promising approach is based on the TV white space concept, which uses sub-GHz frequencies to carry signals over longer distances (lower frequencies carry signals further than higher frequencies and also go ‘through’ obstructions like tree leaves). This spectrum was previously used by analog TV broadcasters. The arrival of digital television created huge gaps in the original analog TV RF spectrum that leave it under-utilized.
TV white space and cognitive radio concepts are now the focus of many wireless R&D labs around the world. It is likely that Internet.org is going to add a turbo boost to these projects!
All in all, Facebook’s internet.org initiative is quite promising and exciting. As we discussed, there is a solid business case to back it up. It now relies on innovations from R&D centers across the wireless ecosystem to make it happen at a price point that makes sense for broad deployment.
Small players like us should note that no matter how large the existing partners are, their participation alone will not be sufficient to make the project a success. From chip vendors to operators, modulation research labs to network management providers, all have to work toward a common goal if Facebook wants to make it happen.
This is another positive aspect to this project: Who better than Facebook to build a community and enable social interactions between the research teams and developers involved in such a large scale adventure?
The bottom line: we’re in!