Facebook to use AI and 5G to connect the next 4.1bn internet users

22 Feb 2016

Combining data science with next-generation open standards comms gear, Facebook wants to help the next 4.1bn people in the world to get online

Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is using artificial intelligence (AI) to find out where people live and see how that affects their internet connections.

According to Facebook, there are 3.2bn people online worldwide.

While it may seem obvious to the 40pc of homes in Ireland currently without broadband that where you live affects the kind of internet connection you can get, across the world other factors count as well, such as affordability, readiness and relevance.

In its State of Connectivity 2015 report, Facebook revealed that data scientists are using AI to identify solutions to bridge that gap for some of the world’s most isolated communities.

Connectivity Lab, the technical wing of Internet.org that experiments with drones, satellites, airplanes and lasers to deliver broadband, worked with Facebook’s data science division to apply machine learning and AI to satellite imagery of 20 countries covering 21.6m square kilometeres.

‘Driving a faster pace of innovation in telecom infrastructure is necessary to meet these new technology challenges and to unlock new opportunities for everyone in the ecosystem’

As part of the project, Facebook is also collaborating with the Centre for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University to produce detailed maps showing the population distribution of 20 countries.

Detailed maps were created using new machine learning techniques and show the most accurate estimates of population distribution and settlements available to date.

According to the data by Facebook, 43pc of the population of the world uses the internet. That’s 3.2bn people online with 4.1bn people offline.

This is despite some 78pc of the world’s population being covered by mobile broadband networks, leaving 1.6bn people not even served by mobile.

The study found that availability alone does not guarantee internet take-up, with other factors like affordability and relevance being deciding factors. At the end of 2014, 500m more people could afford mobile data services of 500MB per month. However, to get online, the 2.7bn people who are not mobile phone users face costs three times higher than that.

Another factor is readiness and, according to Facebook, there are 1bn people who lack basic literacy skills.

Over two-thirds of the unconnected in developing countries do not understand what the internet is.

Facebook found that women in developing countries are 25pc less likely to be online than men.

The social network said that gathering vital geographic and societal data is key to connecting the next 4bn people in order for stakeholders and governments to do their job.

But as well as better data science, the problem also requires getting connectivity to spread and traditional telecoms networks aren’t scaling fast enough. The key could be new networking standards like 5G.

Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project – could 5G be the silver bullet?

Part of Facebook’s solution to the problem will be new open-source wireless gear that any operator can use to provide high-speed 5G coverage so that the 4.1bn people offline can rapidly get up to speed on technologies from video-conferencing to, eventually, virtual reality.

Facebook is working alongside Deutsche Telekom, SK Telecom and Nokia Networks to create new wireless radios and optical switching equipment to speed up the rollout of high-speed networks worldwide.

Facebook’s global head of engineering and infrastructure, Jay Parikh, speaking about the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), said that scaling traditional telecoms infrastructure to meet the global data challenge is not moving as fast as people need it to.

“We know there isn’t a single solution for this, and no one company can tackle the problem alone,” Parikh said.

“Driving a faster pace of innovation in telecom infrastructure is necessary to meet these new technology challenges and to unlock new opportunities for everyone in the ecosystem.

“We know from our experience with the Open Compute Project that the best way to accelerate the pace of innovation is for companies to collaborate and to work in the open. To kick-start this work, TIP members such as Facebook, Intel, and Nokia have pledged to contribute an initial suite of reference designs, while other members, such as operators Deutsche Telekom and SK Telecom will help define and deploy the technology as it fits their needs.

“TIP members will work together to contribute designs in three areas — access, backhaul, and core and management — applying the Open Compute Project models of openness and disaggregation as methods of spurring innovation. In what is a traditionally closed system, component pieces will be unbundled, affording operators more flexibility in building networks.

“This will result in significant gains in cost and operational efficiency for both rural and urban deployments. As the effort progresses, TIP members will work together to accelerate development of technologies like 5G that will pave the way for better connectivity and richer services,” Parikh said.

Internet user in Africa image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years