Cade Metz

Elon Musk’s Unmatched Power in the Stars

The tech billionaire has become the dominant power in satellite internet technology. The ways he is wielding that influence are raising global alarms.

Facebook to Telcos: Forget Hardware Empires—Let’s All Share

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona saw the further rise of a movement that seeks to upend the traditional telecommunication business model, encouraging telecom companies to build common infrastructure they all can share. Why build three networks when you can build one? Wouldn’t that be better for everyone, telcos and consumers alike? Wouldn’t you get a 5G signal sooner—and for less money? The chief mover is not a telco. Rather, it’s a company that has made a habit of putting its name, money, and power behind efforts to democratize the development of new technology: Facebook.

On Feb 27, Facebook announced collaborations with two different telcos in Uganda to lay about 480 miles of fiber in the northwest region of the African nation. The three companies plan to share this fiber with any other interested telco, distributing the internet to countless wireless towers and then on to an estimated 3 million people in the process. Facebook hopes the project can serve as a template for telcos looking to more quickly and efficiently deploy fiber to places that don’t already have it. “Where operators can come together and leverage common infrastructure, there is more flexibility, lower cost, and a better time to market,” says Faceboook vice president of engineering Jay Parikh. And ultimately, that means more people will use Facebook.

Google’s Internet-Beaming Balloon Gets a New Pilot: Artificial Intelligence

The Google X lab launched a balloon into the stratosphere over Peru, and it stayed there for 98 days. Launching balloons into the stratosphere is a usual thing for the Google X lab—or just X, as it’s now called after spinning off from Google and nestling under the new umbrella called Alphabet. X is home to Project Loon, an effort to beam the Internet from the stratosphere down to people here on Earth. The hope is that these balloons can fly over areas of the globe where the Internet is otherwise unavailable and stay there long enough to provide people with a reliable connection. But there’s a problem: balloons tend to float away. That’s why it’s so impressive that the company managed to keep a balloon in Peruvian airspace for over three months. And it’s doubly impressive when you consider that the navigation system can only move these balloons up and down—not forward and back or side to side. They move like hot-air balloons—avoiding the weather or catching it at the right time, rather than pushing right through it—and that’s because a more complex navigation system would be too heavy and too expensive for the task at hand. Rather than navigate Peruvian air space with some sort of jet propulsion system, the Loon team turned to artificial intelligence.

Facebook OpenCellular: A Baby Antenna Brings Internet to the Boonies

Facebook isn't in the wireless business. But it continues to build all sorts of new-fangled wireless hardware. Mark Zuckerberg and company unveiled a creation they call OpenCellular. This is a Sunday-dinner-platter-sized hardware device that attaches to a tree or a street lamp or a telephone pole, and from there it can drive a wireless network, including traditional 2G cell-phone networks, higher speed LTE cellular networks, and smaller Wi-Fi networks like those inside your home, office, or local coffee shop.

Facebook plans on open sourcing the designs for this device, freely sharing them with the world at large, and the hope is that it can provide a simpler and less expensive way of erecting wireless networks in the more rural areas of the developing world, including parts of Africa and India. “There’s not yet a viable business model for operators to set up shop and bring connectivity to rural villages,” says Subbu Subramanian, an engineering director on the project. “We want to make sure people have that connectivity—and that there’s a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem that can spur innovation ever further.”