Home » From the Bombyx robot to ultra-fast submarine cables, Facebook’s plan to bring the Internet to everyone

From the Bombyx robot to ultra-fast submarine cables, Facebook’s plan to bring the Internet to everyone

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The name, Bombyx, is not the best. It says little at first glance and certainly does not bring to mind the Web of the future. You need to know zoology to understand what Facebook refers to: the Asian moth which in the form of a larva is known as the silkworm. The new robot of Mark Zuckerberg’s multinational, Bombyx, does something similar: it runs along electrical cables wrapping them with thin optical fiber covered with Kevlar to bring ultra-fast connection anywhere without having to dig under the road surface. “At a fraction of the cost compared to current systems,” he points out in video link Mike Schroepfer, Chief technology officer of Facebook, the person who oversees all present and future technologies of the Menlo Park giant.

As the controversy on the momentary collapse on 4 October services of the social network and there are accusations of being a monopolist, even on the wave of revelations from former employee Frances Haugen, Facebook looks forward. In particular to those three billion people in the world who still do not have access to the Internet. And to reach them he has three different technologies in mind that are added to those studied by other companies, starting with the Starlink constellation of satellites put into orbit by SpaceX.

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Three moves towards the connections of the future
The Bombyx robot is one of these three moves studied by the Connectivity division, to rapidly expand the audience of those who have access to ultra-broadband, which today numbers about 300 million individuals. The second piece is the new transatlantic submarine cable between Europe and the United States ready for use within three years, 200 times faster than the current ones that date back twenty years ago, and which will also be laid thanks to boats with a high degree of automation. Finally, a wireless data transmission system to cover the last mile called Terragraph: it is able to connect hundreds of homes without having to go with the cable to the home router. It works like a mesh network: the various nodes scattered around the city, the control units, are connected to new generation antennas that bring broadband into homes via microwaves. Nodes and antennas form a web that automatically routes the signal to keep the service constant even when one of them stops working.

Fra blackout e scuse
Ironically, this look to the future is granted in the aftermath of the global collapse of social network services, as we said earlier. “We had a big problem with the servers,” admits Schroepfer. “We pride ourselves on providing services to billions of people and I am very sorry for what happened. But this incident reminds us how important being connected to others is on a personal and professional level. It is something we take for granted when billions of people around the world still do not have access to the Internet. We need radical solutions to tackle this problem that reduce costs and time ”.

Three billion people to bring online
The key to everything is this: to eliminate the obstacles that prevent, even in advanced countries, from getting ultra-broadband everywhere. Facebook, like Google, for years, has been experimenting with solutions, especially with regard to Africa where the population is in some areas too scattered over the territory to make the laying of the fiber economically sustainable. Just think of the Aquila drone program, launched in 2016 and archived in 2018. Using the current power grid as a supporting structure and an autonomous robot like Bombyx to stretch the fiber is, according to Facebook, the best solution. More than 70 of the world population, after all, live at least 10 kilometers away from the fiber. And the cables that the Bombyx robot installs are lighter and stronger than traditional ones so as not to create problems for the infrastructure.

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The lightness of the robot
The robot itself weighs four and a half pounds and takes about four minutes to get from one trellis to the other. Currently the system is semi-autonomous, operators supervise and direct the movements as Bombyx passes the trellis. But the focus is on full autonomy, the technicians will simply have to place the robot on the line, it will take care of the rest by itself until the end of the cable. It was created starting from the helical fiber optic winding techniques of the 1980s, methods for which there was no appropriate technology at the time. But it will take time before we really see it at work, at least three years. For now it is a prototype.

Alaska has wireless Internet
On the other hand, Terragraph is already a reality in Anchorage, Alaska, and Perth, Australia. It is a system suitable only for certain areas where excavating to connect individual houses is difficult or too expensive. “It’s not the solution to everything. And Bombyx isn’t either, ”he explains Karthik Yogeeswaran, Wireless systems engineer at Connectivity. “These are technologies that add to those provided by other companies. And from our point of view the more there are the better ”.

That Web that no one likes anymore
At the end of the virtual conference, however, we return to current events. Among journalists, there are those who ask if Facebook should not think about moderating content on its platforms better instead of focusing on connectivity to bring another three billion people to such a compromised online. “What we’re talking about here is how to offer connectivity to everyone so they can participate in the digital economy,” says Mike Schroepfer. “But that doesn’t mean at all that we don’t invest in content moderation.” But among those who listen to the sensation and that by now there are few who give credit to the largest or now discussed social network in the world.


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