How Facebook plans to make happen

As part of its idealistic — or cynicalquest to connect the world, Facebook, Ericsson and Qualcomm released a hefty white paper Monday as part of their program. The goal of is to provide connectivity to everyone in the world by reducing the cost of delivering data and to make apps that use data more efficiently.

Much of the first half of the white paper can be summed up as Facebook’s advice for telcos regarding how to build out efficient, flexible and cheap infrastructure, instead of the costly, bespoke creations that they operate now — when adding new features can take multiple debates over standards and years of hardware and software upgrades. It’s something I’ve been harping on the telecoms to do for years.

Facebook+Home+launcherHowever, Facebook does let some interesting tidbits slip in this examination of its data warehousing tactics and its praise for Open Compute hardware. For example, Facebook’s data infrastructure crunches more than 10 petabytes of data a day. Also, like many developers, Facebook isn’t keen on Android’s fragmentation problem, especially the difficulties of testing out its app on different devices with different capabilities and operating on wildly different networks.

As Facebook tends to do, it has developed some tools to work around these challenges and still reduce the amount of data its app consumes as well as the effect its app has on battery life. They include:

  • Air Traffic Control: Facebook built testing software that uses Wi-Fi to mimic different cellular network connections and network congestion. This allows Facebook to test how the app behaves on handsets in India.
  • Pre-fetching and WebP: Since pictures are the biggest driver of data demand on the app and people just love looking at and uploading their snapshots to Facebook, it has taken an aggressive stance toward image quality while controlling data consumption. So images are cached when possible and pre-fetched using Wi-Fi. Facebook is also using the Google-defined WebP image standard for a 20 percent savings on bandwidth.
  • Prioritize Wi-Fi: Whether it’s for reducing data usage or cutting back on battery consumption, the Facebook mobile apps prioritizes the use of Wi-Fi whenever possible for pre-fetching content.
  • Tuning the app with the hardware, including the GPU: Facebook is working with chipmakers to make sure its app runs optimally on their hardware, trying to keep it within certain performance thresholds that consume less power. It also added the ability to offload pre-fetched content to the phone’s SD card, freeing up space on a phone’s internal storage, which is usually pretty low on devices sold in emerging markets.
  • Setting custom wakeup cycles for phones: The battery drain for a waking up the device and fetching a new story range from 0.02 percent to 0.1 percent of the total battery, so to spare the battery cost, Facebook sets custom wake-up intervals depending on the device and network.

FacebookHome003Facebook isn’t stopping with these efforts, or with a custom designed app for feature phones that uses server-side processing of images and content to save on data consumption and make up for the low-performance chips in feature phones. A brief mention of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Direct, LTE Direct and other peer-to-peer mesh networking technologies have me hoping that Facebook take some of my advice about bypassing the carriers where it can. Facebook said such technologies “hold a lot of promise in creating new and more efficient models for data sharing that don’t compromise the quality of user experience.” Fingers crossed.

That’s the Facebook side of the equation. It turned over a few chapters in the white paper over to Qualcomm and Ericsson to discuss the networking side of things. Qualcomm rehashed its 1000x vision that focuses on using small cells, more spectrum and a variety of technical solutions such as LTE-Broadcast and carrier aggregation to meet the 1,000-fold demand for mobile data it anticipates.

Meanwhile Ericsson extolled the value of heterogenous networks and hammered home the idea that users want a reliable, consistent network connection and apps that don’t crash. Even though apps aren’t the operator’s domain, Ericsson said they might become their problem, so operators need to work with app developers. For those who are curious, Ericsson’s Vish Nandlall, CTO & Head of Strategy & Marketing, Ericsson North America, will be speaking at our Mobilize event Oct. 16 and 17, and can share more about the effort.

For telecom nerds the Ericsson and Qualcomm stuff likely won’t be game-changing, while application developers might view Facebook’s contributions as useful, but nothing shocking. However, the real value may be to bring both of these worlds together to discuss how apps use the mobile network and how the network needs to change to meet the demands of the app economy.

Having covered both worlds I can tell you that I’ve sat in a room where app developers are clearly unfamiliar with the technical limitations of cellular networks, while I’ve talked to equally flummoxed engineers at telcos who can’t understand why someone would use commodity hardware or forgo five nines reliability. Even if Facebook’s effort can’t bring connectivity to everyone, it certainly will help if it bridges this divide.