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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DanJones 7/7/2016 | 2:46:02 PM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. The Verizon Extender will cover about a 50-foot radius in your home.

And Sprint and T-Mobile will give you signal booster and AT&T will sell you a small cell for cheap/free. That's all about trying to hold onto existing customers -- often paying high monthly bills -- in a cut-throat market. It's part of the cost of customer retention in a completely saturated market.

That doesn't really apply in what Facebook appears to be trying to do. They're attempting to open up greenfield markets.

You could definitely ask: How the hell are they going to backhaul such networks if the infrastructure isn't there?

Of course spectrum access and costs are a problem but Facebook can't do anything about that except lobbying.

TV Monitor 7/7/2016 | 1:26:35 PM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. thebulk

Verizon is selling a $250 LTE pico cell today.


Verizon Wireless has partnered with Samsung's Network Division to create a LTE network extender for homes and small businesses. If you've ever had cell signal issues in your home or office you know it can be a pain, and Verizon says this small box which features Samsung's small cell technology could be the answer to your networking issues.

The LTE network extender will allow up to seven devices make HD calls and receive LTE data within 7,500 square feet, by essentially creating a localized cell tower indoors when connected to broadband. That's big enough to cover small apartment buildings and some offices. You can pick up the Samsung LTE Network Extender from Verizon Wireless today for $249.

So yes, pico cells for a couple hundred dollars are available today. These companies can do a longer range version for slightly more. Facebook need not teach Huawei and Samsung how to build cheap LTE base stations.
Gabriel Brown 7/7/2016 | 1:17:18 PM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. Re: "Telco equipment cost is not the major barrier to cellular expansion in the light of dirt cheap Chinese equipment,  spectrum auction/licensing cost is."

Not only that, but in low-income markets there are all kinds of other factors -- for example:

* Some governments put barriers in the way of investors (e.g. customs duty on telco equipment)

* Operational costs can be very high, especially where equipment might get stolen

* Power may be unreliable

* Imported technicians may be expensive

In addition to licensing, these are the sorts of factors that have more influence than the price of equipment itself.

(Although keep in mind vendors often attempt to sell at much higher prices to emerging market operators, which may have relatively small volume, not much negotiating power, and may lack internal skills).

You would assume Facebook knows all this. I'm not entirely convinced they do, but it would a spectacular oversight if they did not.

Overall, given that operators in the poorest countries often charge high prices for mobile data, Facebook's OpenCellular is to be applauded

thebulk 7/7/2016 | 12:35:10 PM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. @TV Monitor, 

In the 90s the Chinese market was much different than it is today. And while you are right about spectrum auctions, and I don't think anyone is going to use this equipment to launch their own provider. I can forsee a provider allowing this equipment (or other like it) to be used to service rural areas they don't really want anything to do with. 
TV Monitor 7/7/2016 | 11:58:19 AM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. thebulk

Call this an ignorant Westerner's arrogance.

Chrysler once designed a $2,500 People's Car for Chinese consumers in the 1990s, because $2,500 is what Chrysler thought Chinese people could afford. Guess what? China is the biggest market of Luxury cars and the biggest auto market in the world. Telco equipment cost is not the major barrier to cellular expansion in the light of dirt cheap Chinese equipment,  spectrum auction/licensing cost is. And there is nothing that this Facebook base station can do about, since even countries like India is looking to generate $50 billion from spectrum auction, and the cost is passed onto consumers.

Seriously, telecom equipment companies are more qualified to bring out this kind of product than Facebook is, look no further than the $250 LTE extender for Verizon by Samsung, which is essentially an LTE picocell base station.
thebulk 7/7/2016 | 1:33:20 AM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. It's a very long game indeed. Though given their acquisition of Whatsapp they could find a way to monitize that low bandwidth platform long before the actual FB platform would start to see use in those markets.
DanJones 7/6/2016 | 10:54:27 PM
Re: Great tech for developing nations. Yeah, they're playing a long game. 


It occurs to me the ARIES and Terrgraph 60Ghz gear they already have is perfect for backhaul in this kind of set-up too.
thebulk 7/6/2016 | 8:49:18 PM
Great tech for developing nations. This tech could be fantastic for developing nations. I was in a rural hill tribe village in Northern Thailand last year that was completely off the grid and about 25 km through mountain roads to the nearest cell service. And that is just one of many locations. 

Of course as you point out the tech bennefits Facebook a lot, but even if you bring connectivity to places that are largely disconnected it iwll take time for them to actually build a market. 
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