OpenCellular platform looks to make it cheaper and easier to deliver mobile connectivity using open hardware and software
Facebook is designing and testing an open source wireless networking platform which it hopes will make it easier and cheaper to deliver mobile coverage in developing countries and remote locations.
The company says the cost of networking equipment, the difficultly of installation and the cost of other infrastructure, such as electricity, means it is simply not economically viable to deliver cellular connectivity to some parts of the world.
OpenCellular would alleviate these problems by offering simplified hardware that can be scaled up or down depending on population density, easily installed by one person, and has reduced power needs.
Crucially, the network is software-defined so it can be adapted to work with numerous cellular standards, including 2G, 4G and Wi-Fi.
“With OpenCellular, we want to develop affordable new technology that can expand capacity and make it more cost-effective for operators to deploy networks in places where coverage is scarce,” said Facebook. “By open-sourcing the hardware and software designs for this technology, we expect costs to decrease for operators and to make it accessible to new participants.
“Many people might not realize that running their own cellular networks is not only possible but also doesn’t require substantial technical expertise.”
The company plans to open source the hardware design, firmware and software with the Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP) and work with equipment manufacturers and developer communities to advance OpenCellular, which is currently being tested at Facebook headquarters in California.
“So far in our lab at Facebook, we are able to send and receive SMS messages, make voice calls, and use basic data connectivity using 2G implementation on our platform,” said Facebook. “We also aim to partner with TIP members to select trial locations for further validation of technical, functional, and operational aspects of the hardware.”
Open source networks
Facebook has a number of initiatives aimed at boosting mobile coverage in the developing world, where fixed Internet access is scarce or expensive, in a bid to expand its user base. However it has come under fire for its ‘Free Basics’ service which offers certain applications on a ‘zero rate’ basis – i.e. they can be accessed without data costs.
In the UK, EE is looking at open source networks to improve 4G coverage in rural areas and even assist with the future deployments of 5G.
The BT-owned operator has teamed up with Ubuntu and Surrey-based Lime Micro to provide tools for developers to create new applications and services for a mobile network, with the products deployed across EE’s infrastructure.
Lime Micro was founded in 2005 and claims its programmable transceiver is a “world first”. Its technology has been used in a number of Mexican villages deemed to be commercially unviable by local mobile networks, prompting residents to create their own for a few thousand dollars. Because the transceiver can be programmed to work with any wireless standard, and uses open source, the cost of components comes down significantly.