When Starry announced its new venture for gigabit mesh networks in January, it was hailed as ambitious, innovative, and more than a little far-fetched. But Starry isn't the only company developing the technology. Patent records obtained by The Verge show that Facebook is actively developing an extremely similar technology. One patent — filed by Facebook employee Sanjai Kohli in October but made public the week after the Starry announcement — describes a "Next Generation Data Network" that would connect computers using millimeter-wave radio links deployed as a mesh network. Both mesh and millimeter-wave technology are also central ideas in Starry's scheme.
Another patent granted to Kohli at the end of 2015 describes the Next Generation Network in more detail, as a kind of centralized, cloud-based routing system. "The system dynamically adjusts route and frequency channel assignments, transmit power, modulation, coding, and symbol rate to maximize network capacity and probability of packet delivery, rather than trying to maximize the capacity of any one link," the patent reads.
"This work is part of the Connectivity Lab."
Reached by The Verge, Facebook confirmed the millimeter-wave research, and said its development was part of Internet.org's ongoing efforts to build out internet access for rural and poor populations. "This work is part of the Connectivity Lab which supports the mission of Internet.org — to connect the four billion people who don't have Internet access," a representative said. The Connectivity Lab is working on a number of such projects, including systems that would provide connections through satellites or drone-mounted lasers.
As with most patents, there's no guarantee Facebook's millimeter-wave system will ever be built, but it lends new credibility to Starry's claims that millimeter-wave radio can revolutionize the way we connect to the web. It also suggests a possible conflict between the two companies, as both lay claim to ideas that appear to have been developed at more or less the same time. With Facebook's initial millimeter-wave patent yet to be granted, it's still unclear who would have the upper hand in such a fight.