Facebook digs into mobile infrastructure in Uganda as TIP commits $170M to startups

While Google is using MWC to show off some of its advances in native apps on mobile devices — specifically in chat apps — the world’s biggest chat app company is doing something completely different. Today, Facebook announced that it is building a 770-kilometer (500-mile) fiber backhaul network in Uganda, in partnership with India’s Airtel and wholesale provider BCS, carriers that both have networking businesses in the country; and its Telecom Infrastructure Project is leading the charge to invest $170 million into telecoms infrastructure startups.

Alongside this, the company is also making headway on its other efforts to play a bigger role in the infrastructure behind how people connect to the internet (and specifically to Facebook) through its Telecom Infrastructure Project. Facebook’s own Voyager optical networking transponder is now being deployed and tested by the carriers Telia and Orange in Europe.

Facebook said it expects the Uganda project — which will see “tens of millions of investment” from Facebook — to cover access for more than 3 million people (that’s not how many will use it, but how many can potentially be covered). As a backhaul network, the purpose will be to provide more capacity to wireless carriers’ base stations so that they can offer 3G and 4G mobile data services (in many places in the developing world, carriers still can offer no more than 2G or 2.5G).

voyagerThe Voyager project, meanwhile, is one of a number of updates from the TIP, which was created by Facebook last year but (like Facebook’s other connectivity project, Internet.org) counts a number of other members — in this case, over 450, including large and small, regional carriers; equipment and software vendors like Intel and Microsoft; and more.

Other news from the TIP today included the announcement that the TIP will commit $170 million to invest in startups that are building or working on telecom infrastructure solutions. This, in my opinion, is an interesting development, considering how so much of the recent period of development in startups and their funding has been focused on software solutions.

Facebook and the TIP are not revealing too many details yet on which companies are the recipients of this funding — we have asked and will update as we learn more — but it notes that others that are contributing to that $170 million pot include Atlantic Bridge, Capital Enterprise, Downing Ventures, Entrepreneur First, Episode 1 Ventures, IP Group plc, Oxford Sciences Innovation and Touchstone Innovations, along with other investors, incubators and institutions.

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“We believe this focused investment direction from these innovative investors will bring new infrastructure solutions to the industry,” Facebook said in today’s announcement. During a meeting at MWC, Facebook VP Jay Parikh offered a for more details on how Facebook is involved in the fund. “Facebook is not actually investing in that in terms of actual money. That’s the VCs that . We are lending our expertise in mentoring, we help them understand how to do hackathons, how to build out their space, we will offer any expertise we can if they decide to use our open source hardware and software.” He added that the company is essentially helping to bring the knowledge it gained from running its production environment at scale and its culture to these centers. “It’s more sustainable this way,” he noted.

To that end, there are also two new “acceleration centers” getting launched in the UK, spearheaded by BT, for carriers and Facebook to consider and deploy infrastructure solutions from startups in the field. This is on top of a first center that Facebook launched in South Korea last year with SK Telecom. You can read more about TIP’s other projects, which are largely in the very technical, piloting phase of networking technology, here.

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Network connectivity, and Facebook’s “mission to connect the world,” have been longstanding side themes for the social networking company, whose bread and butter continues to be advertising on its social network, which includes Facebook, but also Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram.

Whereas Facebook usage is nearly ubiquitous in regions like North America and Western Europe, in developing markets, especially in places where the infrastructure is lacking for good internet access, it’s less used, and so Facebook’s connectivity efforts are in part a way of creating the right circumstances to attract more business.

But those efforts, while having an overtly charitable and good goal of bridging the digital divide, have had very mixed results up to now. Internet.org — the project where Facebook has partnered with several other companies to provide essentially “free” mobile internet in selected countries — backfired when it got blocked in India over net neutrality concerns (specifically that Facebook’s initiative was helping Facebook more than anyone else). It’s still managed to connect 40 million people with the initiative, which has continued to expand.

Parikh noted in today’s press conference that the company is currently focused on the Express Wifi project in India and that we should “stay tuned” for any further announcements.

And a test of its Aquila drone, a “plane” that beams down Internet access, had a crash as a result of a structural failure.

And while today’s news is about how Facebook appears to be focusing more on building the exact physical infrastructure that it has said in the past was too costly to deploy, it’s also continuing to explore further wireless options, such as this plan to offer access in Africa via satellite. That plan faced a setback when Facebook’s first satellite was destroyed when SpaceX’s rocket exploded last year. Parikh, however, believes that satellites are something the company remains to be interested in and that it is the best solution for remote areas (and potentially a complimentary technology to its Aquila drone efforts).

The Internet.org situation in India shows how governments, businesses and the general public are indeed raising questions about what the full benefits or detriments are of companies like Facebook getting more involved in areas like connectivity. These are questions that will continue to be raised as Facebook provides ever-loftier presentations of its vision. Meanwhile, on a more basic level, there are ongoing questions of just how beneficial more connectivity is without better understanding of what’s being shared. The rise of fake news, for example, coupled with freshly minted surfers, is a scary prospect.

Featured Image: Ken Banks/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

Facebook’s mobile prodigy launches video charades game

Michael Sayman was just 17 when Facebook hired him, but he’d already built 5 apps. Now 7 years after his first launch, the Facebook product manager has just released Show and Tell, which turns selfies and visual communication into a game. You’re given an emotion to act out, you send the video to friends and they try to guess what you’re feeling.

“I made 4 Snaps about 3 years ago and it was like the same thing, except with 4 pictures instead of videos. And so I thought it would be fun to make a video version,” Sayman tells me.

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When I asked the now 20-year old if Facebook helped and if it’s cool with him making his own apps on the side, he tells me Show and Tell is “not connected to Facebook,” and that “as long as they don’t compete, it’s fine.”

Sayman last launched Facebook’s high school-only app experiment Lifestage in August. But with Show and Tell, he says, “I made it during the weekends . . . on a separate laptop, so it was ok 👍. Of course, I had to go make sure it was all good with the conflicts team before putting it anywhere.”

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Sayman, now 20, pictured on the left, was just 17 when he was hired by Facebook, as shown on the right

The game trades on the same immutable fact as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that set off the meteoric rise of video on Facebook: Certain activities make everyone look funny. Like pretending to be a snake, or mimicking the “disgust” emoji. And the game is inherently viral, as it pushes you to send your charades to friends. It’s already gunning for revenue with interstitial ads.

Games built atop mobile video have a big opportunity. While there are plenty of open-ended platforms like YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and Houseparty, one of the core problems is that most people don’t know what to do on camera. Some apps have tried to solve that with crazy selfie filters and stickers that divert the attention from your real face. Show and Tell lets you respond to a prompt rather than creating from scratch.

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There are plenty of other ways this medium could be explored. Video-dating apps where everyone answers a question, Q&A apps for sharing knowledge or games that detect your movement on camera. Show and Tell would have to get pretty big for Sayman to quit his lucrative day job. But this experiment in mobile could also teach Sayman what tricks to bake into Facebook’s next standalone app.

Facebook tests ad breaks in all types of videos, giving creators a 55% cut

Facebook today announced it has begun testing ad breaks that interrupt on-demand video, using a small set of partners who will earn a 55 percent ad revenue share while Facebook keeps 45 percent. That could change the way creators make video content so they tease viewers enough to sit through the ads, while luring more producers to Facebook.

On-demand video publishers will get to select where in their video they want to insert an ad break, but it must be at least 20 seconds in and at least 2 minutes apart. Recode reported last month that ad breaks were coming.

Facebook’s Audience Network for showing ads in other apps now lets all publishers host in-stream video ads, after testing them this year.

Facebook is also expanding its existing test of ad breaks in Live videos that it announced in August. Now Pages and profiles in the U.S. that have at least 2,000 followers and reached at least 300 concurrent viewers in one of their recent Live videos are eligible to insert ad breaks.

After at least 4 minutes of broadcasting to at least 300 concurrent viewers, they’ll see a “You can take an ad break” money sign alert alongside real-time comments on their video. Tapping that initiates an ad break up to 20 seconds, and creators can take more ad breaks every 5 minutes.

Now both live broadcasters and recorded content creators on Facebook will earn a share of ad revenue from their viewers, creating an open monetization platform that could persuade creators to choose Facebook Live.

Ad breaks could actually make it easier for Live creators to be on camera, because if they need to take a quick breather, adjust their hair or switch settings, they can do it off camera. The ad breaks can include vertical video, a further sign of Facebook invading Snapchat’s domain.

And Facebook’s plan takes all the work out of monetization, because its team handles all the ad sales and accounting. Outside of big news and entertainment publishers, many of the web’s top video creators are teens and young adults shooting from their bedrooms and desperate to turn their hobby into a profession.

That’s why YouTube, which pays them, has been the clubhouse for these videographers. Now they have good reason to put their content on Facebook beyond the virality, even if it cannibalizes their YouTube view counts. And Facebook’s ad breaks might lure Live broadcasters away from competitor Periscope, which has only begun doing big sponsorship deals with celebrities. Facebook was already doing one-off deals with big publishers to get them using Live, but now Facebook’s incentive system is available to a much wider range of broadcasters.

Previously, Facebook only showed video ads as either related videos after you watched one purposefully, or as distinct ad units in the feed. Now it can earn cash directly from the more than 100 million hours of video people watch on its platform, and that stat was from a year ago, before Facebook’s continued rise as a video host. Facebook video consumption could also rise beyond its home on mobile with the company’s launch of video viewing apps for TV set-top boxes, though for now it’s not showing ads there.

live-ad-breakThe big concern here, though, is that video makers will purposefully delay the best parts of videos until after ad breaks, making them much less watchable. Currently, creators try to cram the flashiest moments of their content in the first few seconds to catch people’s eyes while they’re scrolling the feed, giving people what they want up front.

Now creators might instead use the first 20 seconds of videos to build suspense to a cliffhanger, insert an ad break and then put the meat of the video after they’ve already earned their cut. Along with the switch from videos autplaying silently to having sound on by default, the whole Facebook video creation playbook will have to change.

Facebook’s VP of partnerships Nick Grudin tells TechCrunch, “Whether on Facebook or off, we’re committed to continuing to work with our partners to develop new monetization products and ad formats for digital video. It’s early days, but today’s updates are a step towards this goal.”

Together, these initiatives could let Facebook further boost the cash it earns from the same amount of News Feed space. If Facebook can lure the best content onto its platform, users will end up sitting through more lucrative ads than if they were just scrolling past photo ads in the feed.

Facebook plans customizable filters for nudity and violence

Facebook wants to give you the power to define what is and isn’t objectionable, and influence the local defaults of those who don’t choose voluntarily. You’ll eventually be able to select how much nudity, violence, graphic content and profanity you’re comfortable seeing.

Mark Zuckerberg revealed this massive shift in Facebook’s Community Standards policy today in his 5,000-word humanitarian manifesto, which you can read our highlights and analysis of here.

Currently, Facebook relies on a one-size-fits-most set of standards about what’s allowed on the network. The only exception is that it abides by local censorship laws. But that’s led to trouble for Facebook, as newsworthy historical photos including nudity and citizen journalism accounts of police violence have been wrongly removed, then restored after media backlash or executive review.

Zuckerberg explains the forthcoming policy, writing:

“The idea is to give everyone in the community options for how they would like to set the content policy for themselves. Where is your line on nudity? On violence? On graphic content? On profanity? What you decide will be your personal settings. We will periodically ask you these questions to increase participation and so you don’t need to dig around to find them. For those who don’t make a decision, the default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected, like a referendum. Of course you will always be free to update your personal settings anytime.

With a broader range of controls, content will only be taken down if it is more objectionable than the most permissive options allow.”

This approach allows Facebook to give vocal, engaged users choice, while establishing reasonable localized norms, without ever forcing specific policies on anyone or requiring all users to configure complicated settings.

To classify potentially objectionable content Facebook will lean more heavily on artificial intelligence, which is already delivering 30 percent of all content flags to its human reviewers. Over time, Zuckerberg hopes Facebook’s AI will learn to make nuanced distinctions, such as between terrorist propaganda and a news report about a terrorist attack.

There are still plenty of questions about how this system will work. For example, what happens to teens? Do they get strict defaults or the same control, and do parents have license to select their kids’ settings? And we don’t know when this will launch, though Zuckerberg implied it would all take time.

This new system of governance could make Facebook’s policies feel less overt, as they should align with local norms. It might also be a boon to certain content creators, such as photographers or painters who make nude art, videographers who capture action or war or unfiltered pundits with niche views.

Personalized and localized site governance might prove more democratic than treating Facebook as one giant country. Its 2012 experiment with allowing people to vote on policies failed and was scrapped because it required 30 percent of a users to vote on long, complicated documents of changes for their majority decision to be binding. The final vote would have needed 300 million votes to be binding, but received just 619,000. Now users who don’t “vote” on their settings receive the local defaults, “like a referendum” in a U.S. state.

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Zuckerberg also outlined several other product development plans. Facebook hopes to add more suggestions for local Groups to tie users deeper into their communities. Facebook will also give Group leaders more tools, akin to what Facebook provides Page owners. Zuckerberg didn’t provide specifics, but those features might include analytics about what content is engaging, the ability to set more types of admins and moderators or the option to add outside app functionality.

As far as safety and information, Facebook wants to expand AI detection of bullying or self-harm, and potentially allow people to report mental health issues, disease or crime. And to fight polarization and sensationalism, not just objectively fake news, it wants to present users with a range of sources across the political spectrum about a given topic. That could potentially come through showing Related Articles on links that draw on sources from other parts of the spectrum.

The central theme of these changes is Facebook empowering users to define their own experience. It wants to see the world move toward a supportive, safe, informed, civically engaged and inclusive global community. But it still sees itself as just a tool, with the direction of progress defined by those who wield it.

Facebook’s new job opening posts poach business from LinkedIn

LinkedIn has neglected two big opportunities Facebook is now capitalizing on: helping lower-skilled workers and people who aren’t actively looking for a job. Today Facebook is rolling out a slew of new Jobs features we spotted it testing last year. They could hurt LinkedIn’s growth prospects and divert recruiting ad dollars.

Business Pages will now be able to post job openings to the News Feed through the status update composer, and host them on a Jobs tab on their Page. When users see these, they can hit an “Apply Now” button to instantly send an application through Facebook Messenger. Facebook will pre-fill the user’s name and profile picture to speed up the process. These features are now becoming available to all U.S. and Canada business Pages.

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Facebook also could start earning revenue from the feature, as businesses can pay to turn these posts into ads so they reach more people in the feed. Businesses could also get some viral help as users re-share openings to their friends, or tag people that they know are looking for a job.

Facebook’s VP of Ads and Business Platform Andrew “Boz” Bosworth tells me the company wanted to see “How can we make Facebook more useful in your everyday life?” They found small businesses were having trouble hiring, and most people are open to a better, higher-paying job, even if they’re satisfied with their current employment.

That’s where LinkedIn has fallen short. It’s become a destination for purposeful job seekers looking for medium- and high-skilled roles.

But for people seeking part-time or hourly jobs, LinkedIn’s focus on your resume and education might have made them hesitant to sign up, and it’s not designed for applying to lots of jobs en masse. And unless you’re unemployed or actively seeking a new job, you might not have a reason to visit LinkedIn.

Yet these people and the businesses looking to hire them are on Facebook every day. A News Feed post or ad can reach a job candidate who didn’t even know they were interested in switching companies. And the “Apply Now” button makes sending your application through Facebook a quick and seamless part of your socializing experience.

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There is one problem: Some job applicants are skittish about employers doing background checks on their social media profiles. Applying directly through Facebook might make that even easier for a company.

But Boz says research has shown “overwhelming enthusiasm” for the product. While social background checks may scare high-skilled workers applying for competitive jobs at elite companies, he says “causal job seekers … they’re just looking for every opportunity they can get.”

Eventually Facebook says it will consider doing more relevancy sorting of Jobs posts and the tab to show people roles that match their education level or work experience. There are also opportunities in recruiting if Facebook allowed a company’s existing employees or viewers of these posts to see which of their friends might be a good fit for an opening. If the Messenger channel becomes popular for receiving applications, it may also need tools to help those hiring manage all their inbound interest.

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For now, though, Facebook’s opportunity is showing jobs to people (the now Microsoft-owned) LinkedIn forgot. “Two-thirds of job seekers are already employed,” says Boz. “They’re not spending their days and nights out there canvassing for jobs. They’re open to a job if a job comes.”

While LinkedIn might be the leader in the employment social network space, its 467 million user count is dwarfed by Facebook’s 1.86 billion. And Facebook’s users come back every day for a variety of reasons, giving them a chance to serendipitously hear about and apply for a dream job they didn’t know they wanted.

7 reasons why Facebook will autoplay sound despite complaints

If you’re freaking out about Facebook starting to autoplay videos with sound by default, at least it won’t pause or play on top of music you’re already listening to through apps like Spotify. Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch today that sound will not autoplay on Facebook videos if you’re already listening to something on your device. You’ll have to tap the sound icon to toggle audio on or tap to make the video full-screen, both of which will pause your other music app.

Some users are sure to be annoyed by the change to autoplaying audio in the News Feed that Facebook announced yesterday. It could lead them to inadvertently blast sound from their phones while in public. That might lead to embarrassing situations, with users getting caught trying to browse Facebook on the sly during work, class, dinner or a conversation. Luckily, those who hate it can turn off autoplay sound in their Facebook settings.

But there are a number of reasons why Facebook would want to do this, surrounding a central theme: Video is the future of Facebook, and it will clear any obstacles to making this content more watchable.

  1. One simple switch – Facebook is essentially deferring audio control to your device’s physical mute switch, which in some ways makes audio less confusing than having to properly configure both the switch and the toggle on each video. Somewhere you can’t be loud? Keep your whole phone on vibrate.
  2. Testers liked it – Facebook said initial tests received positive feedback. It wouldn’t be worth defaulting audio on if it decreased usage of the app, so the change might sound worse than the actual experience.
  3. Snapchat’s doing it – Facebook’s biggest competitor, Snapchat, already leaves sound on by default, which has made it a favorite place both for people to watch videos and businesses to buy video ads.
  4. Video advertisers – Speaking of which, audio is critical to driving an emotional reaction to an advertisement. Snap says more than 60 percent of its video ads are watched with the sound on already. Video ads are emerging as one of Facebook’s biggest money-makers, and as it maxes out ad load this year and doesn’t have space to cram in more, it needs to make each video ad more memorable.
  5. Reduce need for subtitles – Professional publishers now often slap flashy, stylized subtitles on all their Facebook videos to make them understandable with the sound off. That can both be distracting from the visuals, but also isn’t something normal people can do to their clips. User-generated video thereby becomes a second-class citizen, conflicting with Facebook’s goal to put “friends and family first.”
  6. Potential for video soundtracks – Facebook is pushing harder in negotiations with record labels to strike a licensing deal to allow users to include copyrighted music as the soundtracks to their videos. This would prevent annoying copyright infringement take-downs, and make boring stick-your-phone-out-and-pan clips more like epic music videos.
  7. Adapting to wireless earbuds – Apple’s AirPods are great, and wireless earbuds you can leave in throughout the day will continue to rise in popularity. That will allow more people to watch Facebook videos with the sound on, even in public.

Will some users get pissed off? Sure. But Facebook is making a calculated bet that these benefits outweigh the complaints of a vocal minority. Remember, people protested the News Feed’s launch before it became Facebook’s most popular product.