While they look like little more than white shoe boxes, systems being tested at the Facebook headquarters may offer a new way for operators to bring connectivity to rural villages.
OpenCellular, an open source wireless access platform, was designed so that anyone can build and operate wireless networks in remote areas, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday in a Facebook status announcing the launch.
It’s the latest example of tech companies moving from drones and lasers high in the sky to local solutions to connect the 4 billion people who lack internet access.
“This is a local problem, but I think we need to do a better job of empowering folks in different countries to be able to spread connectivity,” Zuckerberg said last month at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, where he also said that connectivity is his top priority. “This isn't something that the U.S. or some American company can come in and do. In the places where it's worked it's been in partnership with local companies and local entrepreneurs and local governments.”
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Facebook is not interested in selling OpenCellular, but plans to give it away and make the hardware and software designs open source so that local actors can build new networks at a lower price point. Because the device can be set up by a single person attaching it to a pole or a tree, it addresses the challenge that infrastructure can often cost more than cellular access point itself. And because the network can be customized it can meet a range of connectivity needs from 2G to LTE in rural and urban areas.
“You cannot have impact without scale and you can’t have scale without something that’s approaching profitability and so that’s what we’re after,” said Jim Forster, an angel investor and chair of Mawingu Networks, an internet access provider in rural Kenya. “Connectivity is all about affordability and hyperlocal plays a big role in that.”
Facebook is working to “build an active open source community around cellular access technology development,” Facebook engineer Kashif Ali wrote in a post diving into the details of the technology.
“One of the reasons the expansion of cellular networks has stalled is that the ecosystem is constrained,” he wrote. “Traditional cellular infrastructure can be very expensive, making it difficult for operators to deploy it everywhere and for smaller organizations or individuals to solve hyperlocal connectivity challenges.”
OpenCellular can handle extreme conditions to provide maximum flexibility for deployment but is designed with simplicity in mind, so that it can be installed without much maintenance or service required. But, just as Facebook experienced with the Free Basics in India and Egypt, exporting these solutions from its headquarters to the markets it aims to reach will not come without its challenges.
As Facebook moves toward mobile, it has to contend with a space that is dominated by one or a limited number of operators, Forster said.
“Telcos are often accused of being bullies. And we are,” said Adia Sowho, who works with the Emirates Telecommunications Corporation, or Etisalat, in Nigeria. Part of the problem is the cost of building networks — most telcos in Nigeria are not profitable, she said at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
There are infrastructure needs, gaps, and opportunities that tech companies must address in partnership with mobile network operators, regulators, and other actors, said Stephen Ozoigbo, CEO of the African Technology Foundation.
The OpenCellular system itself is not a complete solution, Forster said. But Facebook may be uniquely positioned to influence those who hold the cards in the cellular connectivity space, he said.
The device may be able to help facilitate better dialogue with mobile network operators to identify where they don’t have coverage and allow others to go into areas that are not a priority for them and work out some form of revenue sharing, Forster said.
Facebook is currently testing OpenCellular at its headquarters, using the system to send and receive SMS messages, make calls, and use 2G data connectivity. Now that it has unveiled the first design of OpenCellular, including its software and hardware elements, Facebook will continue to make improvements. The company is seeking feedback at email@example.com before making the system available this summer.
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