While the average consumer might just think of Facebook as just a place to post photos, ignore high school friends’ (and distant uncles’) politically charged rants, and catch up on the news, the reality is that Facebook has been quietly building a behind-the-scenes empire that covers everything from advertising to virtual reality to artificial intelligence. And the company’s latest venture makes it clear that Facebook is intent on being a lot more than a social media platform.
It’s been a big week of announcements from Facebook, unveiling new features, like simplified sign-in, in-app ticket-buying and file-sharing through Messenger.
These are all big updates to the social side of Facebook, but it was another, less-heralded announcement — one involving satellites, giant antennas, and functionally city-sized signal-repeaters — that highlights the vast scope of the company’s operations.
These projects are called Terragraph and Project ARIES, and each is designed to solve an internet access problem.
Terragraph is designed for dense urban areas and uses a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is still unlicensed in many countries (including the U.S.), but supports very high data-transmission speeds — at a very short range.
So Terragraph is basically designed as a series of street-level nodes, fairly close together, that function more-or-less like signal-repeaters that can strengthen and carry wireless communications without being hampered by pesky features of the urban landscape, like “buildings” or “people.”
Where Terragraph is designed for the world’s billions of urban would-be internet users, Project ARIES is for their country cousins.
The idea behind the ARIES antenna array is to significantly boost the capacity of wireless networks serving rural, underserved areas without needing to build out more extensive (expensive) network infrastructure or crowd more spectrum. In short, it basically is able to blast out a lot more signal at once than existing, traditional antennas can do.
Terragraph and ARIES are just the latest in a growing number of internet and tech ventures that Facebook has started or acquired in recent years. Some of these projects have a more direct connection to the Facebook social media platform than others.
Here’s a brief overview of some of the many industries Facebook has a hand in right now:
- Advertising: Facebook generates more than $5 billion per quarter in revenue, and this is where more than 96% of it comes from. Facebook not only sells advertising space on their own service(s) to more than 2.5 million businesses, but also through their Atlas service, help businesses use Facebook data to place more effective ads — and track their performance — on other platforms.
- Artificial intelligence: Facebook’s banking big on AI. For now they’re trying to harness AI for tasks as comparatively simple as basic chatbots or automated audio captions of photos, for blind and visually impaired Facebook users. However, AI and machine learning are a major cornerstone of the company’s ten-year plan (see top image) at this point.
- Commerce and payments: Not only can businesses put a “buy” button on their Facebook posts, but you can send money through Messenger, and now you can buy goods and services directly through the platform, too. There’s money to be made in being the middleman, and in rendering everyone else’s independent apps and website obsolete in the name of simplicity.
- Content aggregation: Facebook just announced a “save to Facebook” plugin that works basically just like any other social bookmark or “save for later” tool, like Instapaper or Pocket. Only, y’know, saved to Facebook.
- Content hosting: Facebook’s Instant Articles, designed to optimize news links for mobile connections, effectively keeps media organizations’ content hosted inside Facebook for all mobile readers — which is a huge percentage of the audience, these days. Facebook also revamped its ‘Notes’ feature last year to basically make it a modern blogging platform (think more like Medium) so any individual who wants to create, host, and share web content in that way can also do it without having their readers step foot off of Facebook.
- Direct communication: WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, Facebook’s two direct communication tools, have roughly one billion users each. One app at a time, Facebook is stepping into basically every kind of personal communication function — text, voice, and video — your phone can do, and integrating them under its own umbrella.
- Internet access: Through the non-profit Internet.org and its Free Basicsservice, Facebook provides zero-cost, zero-rated, low-bandwidth data plans to about 25 million users in 37 developing nations. The service, of course, provides all of those users with Facebook access, as well as some other sites and programs that vary locally.
- Internet infrastructure: Free Basics works through partnerships with local telecom companies, but Terragraph and Project Aries are all Facebook’s.
- Photo and video hosting: The last time Facebook published stats on it, users were uploading more than 350 million new photos daily — but that was two years ago. Meanwhile Instagram users post more than 80 million new photos daily, and Facebook users stream over 100 million hours of video. Again: that’sper day. With live streaming video now available to all users, not just celebrities and media accounts, those numbers are only going to keep skyrocketing.
- Social networking: Obviously, this one is the elephant in the room. There are 1.6 billion people, give or take — about 22% of the entire world’s population — on Facebook, sharing photos and status updates and articles and videos and whatever else they want.
- Virtual reality: Facebook spent $2 billion to buy Oculus back in 2014, and the product just finally launched at the end of March. Facebook is all in on VR, as their ten-year plan and recent developer conference highlight, although we can’t say yet how quickly consumers will follow along.