Broadband/Network | ICT4SDG | Infrastructure | SDG17
March 30, 2017

Why Facebook is partnering to build a fiber-optic backhaul network in Uganda

By Carolyn Mathas

Facebook recently announced that it will build a 770-km fiber backhaul network in North Western Uganda by the end of the year, partnering on the project with India’s Airtel and East African wholesaler Bandwidth & Cloud Services Group (BCS) to provide Internet access to some three million people.

The new fiber ring in Uganda would aim to provide and improve connectivity and upgrade performance and support for 3G and 4G.

What is Facebook’s ‘Telecom Infra Project’?

The initiative in Uganda is part of Facebook’s broader strategy to improve connectivity everywhere, with a focus on access, backhaul and core and management — in an attempt to connect underserved populations by transforming telecom infrastructure. It is part of Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which was launched just over a year ago with the stated goal of cutting the cost of building networks to get the world’s next billion users online.

TIP is aimed at bringing together operators, infrastructure providers and system integrators to collaborate on new technology development and break out of the traditional means of creating and deploying telecom networks.

Since starting with five members, TIP now has some 450, including new members such as Afrimax, Airtel, BT, Dish, Etisalat, Microsoft, Millicom, Nextel, Reliance Jio, TIM, and Zain.

Important for Facebook’s growth

Jack Kent, Director Mobile Technology at IHS Market puts the Uganda move into perspective.

“Facebook is well penetrated in most mature markets outside of China,” says Kent.

“Increasing its user base, and improving monetization, in emerging markets will be crucial for its future growth. Asia, South and Central America and the Middle East and Africa accounted for 67% of Facebook’s total active users but only 25% of its revenues in 2016. These are the fastest growing regions in terms of user growth.”

Kent further explained that Facebook’s emerging market strategy to date has focused on growing its audience with services including low-data “lite” versions of its apps, services and partnerships with telcos to zero-rate Facebook (and select other services) data through Free Basics. “These lite and limited versions of the Facebook experience are a useful tool to acquire users, but it needs users to have better data connections to drive advertising, in particular video advertising and monetization,” says Kent. “[Facebook] is investing to ensure that it can monetize that growing user base.”

Applying lessons learned?

The investments in Uganda are seen as a next step in a series of investments by Facebook into developing countries. Their project, Internet.org, has already seen 62 countries adopt Facebook’s mission of “Internet for all.” However, criticism has not been spared as some commentators have labeled the Internet.org rollout in India as “Facebook’s biggest setback,” in part because Facebook was accused of failing to adequately incorporate local and diverse populations into infrastructure plans.

Facebook’s newest project may have learned valuable lessons from India and elsewhere, as the newest move in Uganda has consulted relevant authorities as they plan to dig up ground and lay physical fiber cables.

And Facebook plans to apply any lessons learned during this project in Uganda. “Based on the learnings and results from our work in Uganda, we will engage with other operators in additional countries to scale this model, with the ultimate goal of helping local operators provide robust network coverage,” Facebook said in a recent press release. The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

Carolyn Mathas
@CarolynMathas is a technology writer/editor for a number of industry publications. She writes for the LED and Wireless Networking Design Centers on EDN, and previously several DesignLines and CommsDesign for EE Times. Previously, she was a Senior Editor at Lightwave Magazine and a West Coast correspondent for CleanRooms Magazine.
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