Facebook's 'OpenCellular' Aims to Make Mobile Networks Cheaper to Build

Facebook is again shaking up the wireless infrastructure sector, introducing an open-source wireless access design platform, aimed -- it says -- at bringing mobile Internet service to underserved communities around the world at a lower cost.

Facebook engineer Kashif Ali introduced the "OpenCellular" platform in a blog post Wednesday. The "software-defined wireless access platform" with radio (RF) and baseband computing (GBC) subsystems that can be used to design infrastructure "from a network in a box to an access point supporting everything from 2G to LTE," Ali writes.

"Facebook plans to open-source the hardware design, along with necessary firmware and control software, to enable telecom operators, entrepreneurs, OEMs, and researchers to locally build, implement, deploy, and operate wireless infrastructure based on this platform," Ali notes.

The first version of the OpenCellular platform will be available this summer. Then it is expected to be further developed with community support going forward.

Facebook's First "OpenCellular" Platform Design
(Source: Facebook)
(Source: Facebook)

Facebook argues that outsourcing an access platform and the associated software will make it cheaper and easier to develop mobile infrastructure. Also, since a large part of the cost of wireless deployment is in land rights and rent costs, Facebook says that one of the goals of the project is to deliver "architectural and design improvements that would result in lower costs associated with the civil and supporting infrastructure."

This basically means that it is trying to make the radios and associated baseband controller systems small, and as simple as possible to deploy.

"One of the reasons the expansion of cellular networks has stalled is that the ecosystem is constrained. 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. It's often unaffordable for them to attempt to extend network access in both rural and developed communities," Ali writes.

The social network giant hopes to change that with the OpenCellular project. It says it will work with the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) to develop an open source community around the platform. (See Facebook: TIP Will Open Telecom Hardware and BCE 2016: Reaching Out to Telecom.)

Want to know more about 4G? Check out our dedicated 4G content channel here on Light Reading.

Facebook is currently testing a 2G version of the platform at its Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters. It has sent text messages, made voice calls and made "basic" data connections so far.

Facebook is no ingenue in the wireless infrastructure field anymore either. It has already developed a 60GHz, high-speed radio and antenna system aimed at getting high-speed wireless access to underserved areas. (See Facebook Lauds Terragraph Cost Savings and Facebook Debuts Terragraph & ARIES to Extend Wireless.)

Facebook says that it hopes to connect the unconnected with these wireless projects. "As of the end of 2015, more than 4 billion people were still not connected to the internet, and 10 percent of the world's population were living outside the range of cellular connectivity," Ali notes.

Of course, getting more people online has a very direct benefit for Facebook too. It derives revenue from serving up ads to people connected to mobile networks. In fact, Facebook made 82% of its adverstising revenue in the second quarter of this year from mobile ads.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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kq4ym 7/19/2016 | 9:38:44 AM
Re: Opencellular may be good news With the facts that " more than 4 billion people were still not connected to the internet, and 10 percent of the world's population were living outside the range of cellular connectivity," Facebook would seem to be on a combination of altruism mixed with an opportunity to expand it's reach to that huge group still unserved.
thebulk 7/11/2016 | 10:07:22 AM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. I guess that would really depend on what you need from the provider. I also use my phone mostly on wifi but still carry a large data package so I am always connected.
Amorphous 7/10/2016 | 3:29:09 AM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. They could provide backhaul through stratosphere-based drones or balloons (I think drones was FB's idea & balloons was Google's for providing internet services). Rather than providing plain internet access, provide mobile data access to unconnected areas and get people on board their platform.

The problem with lobbying for spectrum is that the results will vary from country to country. But there is always the unlicensed spectrum, in which case their access points become wifi routers without the ability to provide standard telephony services. But atleast the connectivity gap gets filled up.
sowen557 7/8/2016 | 4:36:14 AM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. Been trying Voice over WiFi solution for about 3 months and has cut my roaming and Mobile bill by 70%.  Also when roaming I use various VoIP clients on my phone.   Ready at end of my 24 month postpaid contract to move to a prepaid SIM again.  GSM, Mobile Operator what do they offer me that WiFi doesnt?
Gabriel Brown 7/8/2016 | 3:22:59 AM
Re: Opencellular may be good news The OpenCellular guy founded this company https://www.endaga.com/

So he obviously has a good idea of the environments Facebook expects people to deploy OpenCelluar-derived networks in.

Facebook's Connectivity Lab seems to be altruistic and well intentioned. I hope they are effective.
amartuladhar 7/8/2016 | 12:08:33 AM
Opencellular may be good news Usually until now, the traditional vendors(Ericsson, Huawei,...) may have built cheap cells/equipement(reference to Verrizon USD250 solution), but they have always made interconnection extremely complicated. In other words equipment(Cells) from traditional vendors can be connected to core networks(be it BSC, RNC or EPC) of their own only.

I think the opencellular may allow to deploy access network (cells) and can be connected (due to open source development) to core of any tradtional vendor. This will definitely reduce the cost of network building.

thebulk 7/7/2016 | 3:45:50 PM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. The back haul question is a legit one. But perhaps that's a problem to solve down the road.
thebulk 7/7/2016 | 3:45:00 PM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. Open source and open standards seem to be in their DNA as a compny, not completely but to some extent.
danielcawrey 7/7/2016 | 3:41:15 PM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. This sounds pretty cool. It remindes me of Open Compute, the standards Facebook have put out for building data center technology. 

For all the criticism of Facebook, the company is doing some pretty compelling things. I really like how they are pushing forward open standards like this. 
thebulk 7/7/2016 | 2:57:29 PM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. Those devices are all built for the home, they don't really apply in developing markets. I don't disagree that there are others in the market that might have a better handle on the tech, but that doesn't mean there is no room for another player and that they can't make waves. 
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