Smaller, Slower, Scavenged: The Story of Facebook’s Free Urban Wi-Fi

When Meta’s beta came in five years late-a

7 min read

San Jose downtown view with wifi signal

In April 2016, Facebook (whose parent company yesterday changed its name to Meta) announced that its innovative 60GHz Terragraph technology was going to bring free gigabit-speed internet to the downtown core of San Jose, California within months, at a fraction of the cost of traditional fiber optic systems.

Instead, the system finally went live earlier this month, half a decade late and following an expensive refresh of the original hardware. It offers just a fraction of the speed and coverage originally promised, and its long-term future is already uncertain.

So what went wrong? And if even a tech-savvy city in Silicon Valley struggles to make municipal Wi-Fi work, what does that mean for the unconnected billions around the globe that Facebook is really aiming for?

In 2001, the FCC set aside a chunk of spectrum centered on 60GHz for unlicensed wireless communications. Millimeter-wave 60GHz signals can carry a lot of data but are strongly absorbed by oxygen—limiting their range but also reducing the chance of interference. Google has been using 60GHz (aka V-band) frequencies for short-range radar sensors in its Pixel phones and Nest thermostats, but Facebook was thinking bigger.

In 2015, Facebook Connectivity began work on a multi-node 60GHz mesh networking technology to serve urban areas without digging trenches or laying expensive cables. Each Terragraph node attaches to piece of street furniture such as a traffic light or lamp post, and connects to another node via line-of-sight radio beams. With smart networking and just a couple of connections to a fiber optic network, a Terragraph backhaul network could theoretically serve Wi-Fi access points across an entire neighborhood at over three gigabits (3000 megabits) per second.

Facebook intended the technology as a solution for developing countries that can't afford to widely deploy fiber optic cables, as well as for the billion-plus people globally it estimates are relying on outdated last-mile infrastructure.

The promise of 160x

San Jose must have seemed like the perfect place to test Terragraph. Not only was the city convenient to Facebook's Menlo Park HQ, it also needed to replace an aging community internet system called Wickedly Fast Wi-Fi that offered a paltry 20 megabits per second and lacked ongoing funds for maintenance. "I started turning it off because it was wickedly terrible," quipped San Jose councilmember Johnny Khamis.

Terragraph would be 160 times faster, an official promised. That would fit with Mayor Sam Liccardo's plan to transform San Jose into "the most innovative city in America" by 2020, and help its 100,000 citizens who lacked internet access at home.

"Cities worldwide are searching for ways to ensure that all residents can enjoy the benefits of internet connectivity by broadening access to fast and affordable broadband service," said Liccardo at the time. "San Jose is proud to work with a global tech leader like Facebook to pilot a next-generation technology that can help us achieve these goals and support research to support communities around the world."

Facebook would provide all the necessary Terragraph and Wi-Fi equipment for free during the three-year trial, which it expected to have up and running for consumers by late 2016.

Courting commercial operators

In October 2017, a year after the Terragraph network was meant to be operational, Dolan Beckel, then the city's director of Civic Innovation and Digital Strategy, admitted the project had fallen behind schedule. "Terragraph has a higher risk profile because it's the first implementation in the world of the 60GHz ultra-fast Wi-Fi," he told the city council. Beckel described how permitting the installation of Terragraph nodes had taken longer than expected, and that the city had learned some of its street lights were only powered at night, making them useless for a 24/7 Wi-Fi network. The prototype hardware also needed replacing and upgrading more often than anyone had planned for.

Six months later, Yael Maguire, a VP of Engineering at Facebook, appeared before the council to explain the ongoing delays. "We're building the largest 60GHz network that likely exists in the world," he said. "It's still cutting edge, and there are still challenges to deploy it at scale." But the system had just finished testing, and was now ready for city employees to "dogfood it"—test internally before opening it up to the general public.

“Technology is more like a baby than a bridge. It takes care and feeding, and you cannot neglect it, because then the service level deteriorates to the point where people call it names."
—Rob Lloyd, San Jose CIO

That unearthed another issue. Some city workers, including several council members, had trouble finding, registering and logging on to the new network. Others were reluctant to sign up and use the application, which only works outdoors and served only about a square mile of the city center. Beckel's team eventually managed to recruit about 1000 employees, after incentivizing them with ice cream.

By the end of 2018, the network had about 250 Terragraph nodes and Beckel felt confident enough to sign a one-year extension of the project, now aiming for public operations by spring 2020. The plan was to tempt a commercial operator into picking up the estimated $200,000 annual running cost of the system, in exchange for advertising or other considerations, such as being able to use the city's poles for their own communications services. "There are interested parties [and] we believe there's a feasible business case to be had," said Beckel.

5G: A new competitor

A year later, Beckel was singing a different tune. After distributing the city's request for information to over 100 companies, only a handful submitted responses, of which just two were considered viable, and only one met the city's revenue goal. The big telecoms companies like AT&T or Verizon were, for the most part, not interested in large-scale Wi-Fi deployments, reported Beckel: "There would need to be a larger network foundation before public and revenue-enhancing services could be entertained." Perhaps unsurprisingly, the wireless carriers were far more excited by an ongoing plan to install thousands of "small cells" for paid 5G data service in the city, often on the very same street furniture as the Terragraph nodes.

Moreover, before any transition could happen, Facebook was now saying it needed to upgrade its demonstration Terragraph equipment to production hardware (costing $1 million to $2 million) and to optimize the network to improve the experience for users. The tech giant would provide the hardware for free, but the city would have to find perhaps $400,000 in staff and labor costs, as well as continuing cash for maintenance.

"While this demo application provided a potential application for free Wi-Fi, the actual agreement did not address funding the network operations nor any other necessary tasks to operationalize the demo in the public domain," said Beckel. "In other words, we planned for failure. We did not plan for success."

If the city couldn't find the money, or a commercial partner within a matter of weeks, the Terragraph network would have to be taken down.

Decommissioned and scavenged for parts

And that's exactly what happened. The last potential partnership fell through, and at the end of 2020, Facebook removed its prototype Terragraph hardware for good. The "world's largest" 60GHz network was no more, leaving San Jose stuck with its ancient, and increasingly ironically named, Wickedly Fast Wi-Fi.

"The original vision was exceedingly large and ambitious. And that's good, that sets a high bar," Rob Lloyd, San Jose's Chief Information Officer told Spectrum. "We were working through the models, saying is there an ISP who would take this on? How do you deploy a free network that really supports digital inclusion and generates enough revenue? A lot of communities have tripped up on that."

The demise of the original Terragraph network actually helped another of San Jose's community Wi-Fi projects, says Lloyd. "The payoff on the 5G small cell deployments was huge and helped us make very large agreements," he says. The city even repurposed some of the decommissioned Wi-Fi hardware from the Terragraph network to support the 5G system.

But Terragraph wasn't quite done yet. At a council meeting in April 2021, Mayor Liccardo announced its surprise resurrection, with city itself putting up the money to support a smaller, more focused network. "Terragraph is coming back from the dead," he said. "That was a hard one to revive but I think it's going to be very impactful."

"Terragraph 2.0," as a city document called it, would have fewer than half the number of Terragraph nodes (92) than its original incarnation, and serve just a small corridor of downtown. And where once the project had been intended to bridge the digital divide and help underserved residents, a September memo now noted: "The [new] design prioritizes… potential use specifically in support of downtown businesses." It would, however, enable the city to retire the Wickedly Fast Wi-Fi once and for all. The new system, provided by Facebook and wireless equipment manufacturer Cambian Networks, is now finally open to the public, offering download speeds of around 70 megabits per second. That's a big improvement on the decade-old Wickedly Fast system but an order of magnitude slower than was originally envisioned.

"We said if we're gonna do this again, we have to put some money on the line," says Lloyd. "Wickedly Fast Wi-Fi was a one time imperative, not realizing that technology is more like a baby than a bridge. It takes care and feeding, and you cannot neglect it, because then the service level deteriorates to the point where people call it names."

That being said, the city has only budgeted for operating and maintaining for the new 60GHz network, leaving future upgrades or replacements still unfunded. Whatever the future holds, Facebook has made it "really clear" it won't be involved, says Lloyd.

Any future for Terragraph?

"The City of San Jose was an incredible partner for this experiment and together, we proved the success of the technology," a Facebook spokesperson told Spectrum. Facebook Connectivity now licenses Terragraph for free to various partners, who the company claims have shipped over 30,000 Terragraph units to more than 100 service providers and system integrators around the world. In Alaska, for instance, the technology is used to provide (paid) high-speed internet access to customers in spite of the state's harsh terrain.

Whether Terragraph will ever be used to flood city centers with free gigabit wi-fi, however, seems uncertain. Municipal internet projects have a troubled history, according to a recent study by Christopher Yoo, professor of law, communication, and computer & information science at the University of Pennsylvania. None of the 15 US municipal fiber projects it identified generated sufficient cash flow to maintain solvency without infusions of additional funds, and more than half were not on track to break even under a theoretical best-case scenario.

Even San Jose's Beckel is skeptical that cities can go it alone. "Community Wi-Fi cannot be maintained without a sustainable revenue stream," he said at a Smart City meeting in 2019. "Being an internet service provider is not what a city can or should do."

The Conversation (1)
Jacob Delabie
Jacob Delabie01 Nov, 2021

"short-range radar sensors in its Pixel phones", why would they use Soli rather than a TOF camera?It's low power sure, but it can't be used for complex gesture detection