Facebook Connectivity – a group within the social networking giant focused on innovative ways to expand Internet access, ranging from drones to lasers – announced its newest effort this week: a robot that can deploy fiber across a utility grid.
The effort is primarily designed to reduce the cost of deploying telecom networks in rural areas around the world. After all, most rural locations are connected to the power grid via overhead power lines. It's those power lines that Facebook's robot would slowly crawl over, wrapping a super-slim fiber cable around the line as it goes.
As Cnet noted, the robot's code name is Bombyx, which is Latin for silkworm.
As Facebook's Karthik Yogeeswaran wrote, the robot – roughly the size of a really skinny adult – is designed to wrap fiber-optic cable around medium-voltage (MV) power lines. The robot weighs around 30 pounds, can carry roughly 1 kilometer of fiber, and is able to autonomously wiggle over support structures, insulators, taps and other obstacles in the line. Yogeeswaran notes that ULC Robotics – a New York startup – built the robot after years of attempts and dozens of different designs.
The new Bombyx robot from Facebook Connectivity isn't a perfect solution to the world's connectivity problems. For example, power lines are often buried in dense urban environments. And because these robots are deploying super slim and lightweight cables that don't require the installation of any extra support infrastructure, they can only support 24 strands of connectivity. That's far less than the 864-strand fiber Verizon is deploying across major US routes for its 5G network.
Facebook officials acknowledge the robot is really only suitable for "middle mile" and not "last mile" connections – meaning, it typically can't deploy fiber to an actual end user but only along long-distance electricity transmission lines.
But the key upshot is that Facebook's fiber-weaving robot could significantly cut down the cost of adding fiber routes on top of electricity lines – a process initially pioneered in the 1980s that suffered from high costs. As Cnet noted, Facebook estimates its method could reduce costs from $10 per meter to $2 to $3 per meter in developing markets, and from $20 or more per meter in developed markets to less than $5 per meter.
"We believe this technology will allow fiber to effectively and sustainably be deployed within a few hundred meters of much of the world's population," Facebook's Yogeeswaran wrote. "We expect to see technology trials of this fiber deployment system next year."
Facebook added that startup NetEquity Networks will be its first "partner" that will use its technology in a commercial setting. As with most of the other technologies that have come out of Facebook Connectivity, Facebook does not have a financial stake in NetEquity Networks and will not own or operate fiber networks deployed by the company.
NetEquity Networks is hammering out the business case of deploying fiber networks on top of electricity grids. The company is working on a global level to identify entrepreneurs and others that want to work with local electricity companies and investors to build fiber optic networks that could be then leased to telecom operators.
"At present we are in discussions with six electric companies in two countries," the company wrote in February. "During 2020 we intend to expand our dialogue in multiple markets."
Mixed results for Facebook
Facebook's connectivity efforts have a mixed track record. In 2018, the company shuttered its Aquila project that envisioned building a fleet of solar-powered aircraft for connecting people in remote parts of the world. But Facebook's Telecom Infra Project (TIP) has enjoyed widespread interest among network operators keen to use data center technologies to reduce the cost of their network equipment and loosen the hold that equipment vendors enjoy over the design of telecom networks.
For Facebook, bringing Internet connections to more people, including those in rural areas, certainly dovetails with the company's wider business of selling advertisements across users' social networks. But it also aligns with a growing push among US policymakers to quickly cross the digital divide as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes workers, students and others to do their work on the Internet.
Finally, the focus of Facebook's Bombyx robot on the utility industry specifically appears well timed. Although utilities in the US for decades have operated their own telecom networks, some appear to be focusing more carefully on the sector. For example, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) is in the midst of constructing a $153 million, 700-mile fiber network across New York. Further, a wide range of utility companies are lined up to bid on 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum for possible wireless networks.