Putcha: Facebook Connectivity shines spotlight on emerging 60 GHz broadband opportunity

Shiv Putcha

Recently, Facebook’s Connectivity group hosted a virtual forum with partners and customers to showcase growing momentum for gigabit broadband initiatives around the world based on Terragraph-certified equipment.

The event brought together communications service providers (CSPs) like YTL Communications from Malaysia, Common Networks from the San Francisco Bay Area and Aeronet in Puerto Rico. There were also representatives from partners like Cambium Networks, Siklu and RADWIN, as well as end users like Agile Networks, DigitalC and NextLink in the United States.

Facebook Connectivity has several projects covering the gamut from Terragraph to HAPS-based connectivity to the growing Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which is having quite an impact on the industry by driving innovations like open RAN. However, this article focuses on the momentum behind Terragraph, which is based on the WiGig technology standard, which has been specified by the IEEE.

Specifically, the 802.11ay standard is the new baseline for Terragraph radios. Terragraph has been designed to bridge the last mile gap between the subscriber's premise and the CSP's closest fiber node. One possible deployment strategy will be to have base stations using Terragraph radios mounted to street furniture such as electricity or light poles to "beam" Gigabit connectivity to the premise, typically with four, 90-degree sectors and then connect to other base stations in a Layer 2 or Layer 3 “mesh.”

Terragraph’s relevance for broadband access is increasing

Several months after Covid19 broke, the pandemic has caused varying degrees of lockdown and targeted containment that has forced businesses and schools to shut, hustled employees into working from home or pretty much anywhere they can find a space with connectivity and power and generally rewired the paradigm for work. The one consistent takeaway from all of this has been the soaring demand for broadband connectivity to the point where it has become an “essential” service.

This “Next Billion” phenomenon can be seen for urban communities, but particularly for rural broadband, where millions of people lack broadband access. The U.S. alone has 21 million people without broadband in rural areas according to the FCC.  Those numbers reach staggering proportions when factoring in other regions in the world, especially emerging markets. 

In the year 2020, one could be forgiven for asking why broadband access is still a pressing issue. Doesn’t everyone have fiber to the home? Not even close!!! In reality, less than half of the world’s households have fixed broadband connectivity. Removing China from the mix drops the contribution of fiber dramatically. The single biggest challenge has been prohibitive costs incurred for connecting the “last mile” to the customer premise, due to expensive Rights of Way (RoW), construction permits and the actual cost of digging right up to the premise. These are challenges regardless of location or country. For example, it can be as challenging and expensive to run a “fiber pass” in the Bay Area as it is in densely populated Mumbai. 

RELATED: Industry Voices — Putcha: Fixed wireless access is poised for global scale and adoption

With soaring demand for broadband connectivity, CSPs are caught on the horns of a dilemma – incur the high Capex associated with FTTx and 5G or opt for incremental upgrades to their existing copper and cable infrastructure.

ISPs in particular face the additional competitive threat of 4G and 5G-based fixed wireless access (FWA) services that leverage the mobile network of the CSPs.

However, there is now another technology to add to the toolkit. That is, use the unlicensed frequencies at 60 GHz to reduce spectrum-related Capex, deploy a Terragraph-based mesh network that takes advantage of up to 14 GHz of bandwidth, and offer FWA services to the premise. Indeed, some CSPs are already working with Facebook on “lighthouse projects.”

RELATED: Agile Networks prepares to launch Terragraph technology in Ohio

Common Networks, an ISP in the San Francisco Bay Area, YTL Communications, a CSP in Malaysia, and Aeronet in Puerto Rico are among the first to trial and deploy these networks. Not only are the deployment costs much cheaper, but in some cases like with Aeronet, the technology helped it get broadband connectivity back very fast after Hurricane Maria. YTL reportedly launched its network for Georgetown, a city in the Penang province of Malaysia in ten days! 

V-band mmWave for last mile connectivity is disruptive 

Utilizing 60 GHz V-band mmWave frequencies to bridge the last mile supply gap can be a disruptive proposition for consumer and enterprise customers. Terragraph trials have shown that the technology is easy to install, can be meshed to dynamically handle traffic management and scale cost-effectively to cover larger neighborhoods and even urban areas.

If the service proposition focuses on offering broadband to the premise, consumer household or enterprise, then the cost of the customer premise equipment (CPE) comes into play. At present, despite smaller volumes, the cost of a Terragraph-certified CPE operating at 60 GHz is already less than half of a 5G FWA CPE. With significantly lower costs for the CPE as well as savings in the Capex due to fiber-like wireless “backhaul” connectivity, the overall total cost of ownership (TCO) is significantly lower, relative to fiber, DSL, cable, or even cellular options.

Terragraph can also be a very disruptive option for CSPs who are looking to densify their mobile networks in preparation for 5G.

Lost amidst all the talk and hype about 5G and its immense benefits is that the ability to realize the 5G vision is predicated on the availability of fiber. Many the world’s cell towers do not yet have fiber connectivity, and this is especially true of emerging markets. But the need for fiber connectivity is even higher now with evolving RAN deployment models. The rise of fronthaul and midhaul connectivity to enable emerging vRAN architectures means that fiber demand is rising rapidly. However, the Capex involved in densifying the network with fiber is still very high.

In the longer term, new 5G standards like Integrated Access Backhaul (IAB) can fulfill this need. In the short term, Terragraph can be an alternative for CSPs to consider for their transport networks. Indeed, YTL in Malaysia is already looking closely at this option.  

Shiv Putcha is the Founder and Principal Analyst at Mandala Insights, an independent, boutique analyst firm that offers insights, opinions and research on the network and emerging technologies that will drive the next billion digital opportunities in Asia. Shiv is also keenly focused on the intersection of rising enterprise productivity, Industry 4.0 and 5G. Prior to founding Mandala, Shiv covered the telecommunications industry in Asia-Pacific for IDC and Ovum, along with stints at the Yankee Group, Qualcomm and LogicaCMG while based in the United States.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.