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Facebook eyes millimeter-wave wireless to power free internet

Zuckerberg's company is researching the same tech used by Starry.
Steve Dent, @stevetdent
February 10, 2016
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AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Despite a major setback in India, Facebook is still working on expanding its Free Basics service (part of internet.org) for developing nations. The company told the Verge that it's researching wireless networks that use extremely high-frequency millimeter-wave bands. It applied for at least two patents on the tech, which is similar to that proposed by Starry, the company led by fomer Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia. "This work is part of the Connectivity Lab which supports the mission of Internet.org -- to connect the four billion people who don't have Internet access," a representative said.

Millimeter-wave wireless operates in the 30 to 300GHz spectrum, a frequency also being tested by operators for proposed 5G cellular networks. It's generally set up as a "mesh" network, where signals are bounced between strategically placed antennas. Such signals generally don't go through walls or other obstacles, so a direct line of sight is required. Kanojia recently told Engadget that Starry plans to use it to deliver gigabit-speed connections with unlimited caps.

Along with its research into millimeter-wave networks, Facebook's Connectivity Lab is looking at ways to provide internet via satellite and other means. However, the company's Free Basics service, which gives users access to Facebook and a few other sites (but not the rest of internet), has stumbled. Many think that it violates net neutrality principals and could harm other projects to provide free internet to poor regions. Google, for instance, has Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to distribute wireless internet over a wide swath, with no content restrictions.

Facebook's patent applications detail how networks could be built efficiently using millimeter-wave systems, but there's no guarantee that they'll be granted by the USPTO. Quite a few players are researching the tech, including cellular network operators, Starry and now Facebook. That means that the US Patent Office, not the FCC, may end up picking the winners and losers.

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