Downtown San Jose, Calif., rises to the northeast of the Interstate 280-Highway 87 interchange in this aerial view taken Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 2, 2015, in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon)
SAN JOSE — If you’ve ever had trouble connecting to your favorite social media network or checking email inside a downtown San Jose restaurant or bar, Facebook might have the answer. The Menlo Park company is unveiling new technology to boost wi-fi and San Jose is the first to try it out.
“We think we have found a more efficient way to provide more wireless capacity in dense urban areas by using wi-fi,” said Facebook spokesman Derick Mains.
It’s called “Terragraph” and it’s only been tested on Facebook’s campus. Facebook officials expect to launch a “trial” in downtown San Jose later this year. It’s unclear when the testing begins or how long it will last.
Mains said the technology is easier to install and less expensive than trenching streets to set up fiber Internet services, such as Google Fiber. Facebook will install metal boxes, about the size of a shoe box, on light poles throughout downtown. Then they’ll feed existing high-speed fiber optic cables into the boxes, which transmit data signals wirelessly from box to box.
Facebook will tap into the city’s current wi-fi network, but the boxes strengthen the signal and allow it to move around traffic, crowds and tall buildings.
The wireless connectivity and ability to use mobile data will be faster and more reliable, Mains said, but the network is only available outdoors — for now. That’s because it’s an easier technology to implement during the trial period, he said. Depending on how the trial goes, Facebook might expand the service to underserved areas such as East San Jose whose residents often don’t have the same digital access.
San Jose last year held its breath that it would be the first city in California to get Google Fiber, a lightning-fast fiber Internet and TV service. But disappointment followed when the Mountain View tech giant announced it will launch in San Francisco first.
But city leaders say it’s an accolade for San Jose to be the first in the world to test Facebook’s new wireless system — though it wouldn’t be as fast as Google Fiber.
The launch is also aligned with San Jose’s new vision to become a “Smart City,” an initiative to use technology to make the Capital of Silicon Valley safer and more sustainable.
“Cities worldwide are searching for ways to ensure that all residents can enjoy the benefits of internet connectivity by broadening access to fast and affordable broadband service,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo. “San Jose is proud to work with a global tech leader like Facebook to pilot a next-generation technology that can help us achieve these goals and support research to support communities around the world.”
Mains said Facebook chose downtown San Jose to test the new technology because of its high-rise buildings and Internet congestion due to high-user traffic — big crowds all trying to access the same network.
“It’s the right environment and a very good fit,” Mains said. “And they’ve been very welcoming of private-sector collaboration to provide more connectivity to their citizens.”
Vijay Sammeta, San Jose’s chief information officer, said the city won’t pay installation costs. It will pay for some staff time needed to provide Facebook access to the existing city wi-fi system.
Facebook’s new network will be available to downtown residents and visitors at no charge, similar to the city’s free wi-fi.
With privacy concerns on many residents’ minds, Mains said Facebook will not be collecting user data during the trial period. He promised it will look only at how the network performs, including download speeds.
If the test is successful, Mains added, the goal is to deploy it more widely in downtown in 2017, and possibly even bring it indoors.
And when it comes to competition from Google Fiber and other fiber services from ATT and Comcast, Facebook says it’s not fazed.
“Our view is the more high-speed reliable connectivity that exists, regardless of who provides it, is good for everybody,” Mains said.
Contact Ramona Giwargis at 408-920-5705. Follow her at Twitter.com/ramonagiwargis.
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