Facebook’s OpenCellular makes it easier to start your own mobile network

california review of images and mark zuckerberg ceo at facebook 2
Facebook is making progress — albeit slow progress — toward its ambitious goal of connecting the roughly 4 billion people around the world who lack internet access. On Wednesday, the social network took the wraps off OpenCellular, an open-source initiative aimed at easing the market barriers to entry for mobile carriers in developing countries.

Kashif Ali, the Facebook engineer who headed the project, laid out the details in an extensive post on Facebook’s Code blog. The project is about affordability, at its core. “One of the reasons the expansion of cellular networks has stalled is that the ecosystem is constrained,” explained Ali. “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.”

Somewhat counterintuitively, cell towers aren’t typically the priciest components of a cellular network. Rather, the civil and “supporting infrastructure” costs involved — that is to say, the land, power, and network backbone needed to support the towers — often represent a far bigger slice of upfront investment than the cellular access points themselves, said Ali. OpenCellular’s endgame, then, was to develop a cost-effective solution tailored to the needs of cell providers in remote nations — the rural villages and towns just beyond range of major cellular services.

13571114_640532859430941_2062712453_n

It took a two-tier approach: cheap, customizable hardware and free software.

OpenCellular’s hardware solution takes the form of a cell “platform” that’s highly modular. Ali broke down the hardware’s nitty-gritty. One component, general-baseband computing (GBC), is best described as the brains of the base station. It comprises a number of specialized processors, co-processors and sensors that monitor temperature, voltage, and current, and accepts power through the most reliable source available in a given locale, be it solar, DC, external batteries, an internal battery, or Ethernet.

A second element, the “radio with integrated front-end,” handles cell signal broadcasts. It supports a number of network standards “from 2G and LTE to Wi-Fi,” Ali said, and can be configured to serve a range of population densities thanks to “on-board computing and storage capacity.”

Above all else, the cell is rugged. It’s built to withstand extreme weather conditions and temperatures, and features a mounting solution engineered to handle “high winds” and “rugged climates,” Ali said. It allows, too, for significant flexibility in placement — the base station can be affixed to practically any tall structure, from a pole “only a few feet off the ground” to a “tower or tree,” Ali said.

13602279_1640204232965130_1667121936_n

OpenCellular’s software component is just as approachable. The platform, which Ali described as requiring little-to-no setup, can route text messages, voice calls, and 2G data. And it’ll grow and develop in the future. “We aim to work with [project] members to build an active open-source community around cellular access technology development and to select trial locations for further validation of technical, functional, and operational aspects of the platform,” Ali said.

OpenCellular is but one component of Facebook’s far-reaching internet access effort. The company has inked agreements with service providers and governments in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to deliver a selection of web services for free under the moniker Free Basics. Its secretive Connectivity Lab, a division devoted to developing internet technologies for isolated regions of the world, is working on lasers for delivering internet content at gigabit speeds.

And if recent patent filings are any indication, Facebook might be pursuing millimeter-wave technology — short-wave radios capable of delivering internet in areas where more traditional infrastructure, like fiber wire and cellular, aren’t feasible.

13601299_1792047774380875_1171869391_n

Some of those efforts have met pushback. Regulators in India have deemed Facebook’s Free Basics illegal under the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)’s network neutrality rules. The Egyptian government chose not to renew its Free Basics agreement with Facebook last year. And in January, digital rights groups signed an open letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg condemning Free Basics, calling it “threatening [to] freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy, and innovation.”

But Facebook remains undeterred. In the past several months alone, it has introduced a number of products aimed at Facebook users in countries with slow, inconsistent, or otherwise unreliable internet service, including Facebook Lite, a low-bandwidth version of the Facebook app for smartphones, video downloads for offline viewing, and Slideshow, a highly compressed video ad unit. And that persistence has paid dividends. Since 2012, Facebook has quadrupled the revenue per user it earns in what it calls  its “Rest Of World” region — markets such as India, Brazil, and Mexico.

Mobile

5 features I’d like to see in Google’s Pixel 4 smartphone

We’ve had a sneak peek at Google’s forthcoming Pixel 4 smartphone, and it offers few clues about what we’ll get. These are the 5 features I’d like to see Google include to take the Pixel line to the next level.
Gaming

Square Enix has no clue how many episodes Final Fantasy VII Remake will take

The initial release of the Final Fantasy VII Remake on March 3, 2020 will feature the part of the adventure that takes place in Midgar. Square Enix has no idea on how many episodes it will take to tell the full story of the original RPG.
Mobile

Huawei’s lock screen ads were a mistake, but may be a sign of things to come

Ads were placed on the lock screen of Huawei device owners yesterday, causing outcry on forums and social media. Huawei initially said it wasn't responsible, but that's no longer the case. Here's what happened.
Computing

Monzo will launch its banking app in the U.S., but it may be a hard sell

Monzo, a popular mobile banking app from the U.K., will launch this summer in the United States, but its plan for a slow release and an initially feature-light banking app may be a hard sell for its prospective U.S. customers.
Mobile

Longing for an old-school phone? You'll flip out for the best flip phones

Welcome back to the 1990s and early 2000s. There seems to be a mini flip phone craze going on. Smartphones are great, but who doesn't love a good, old-fashioned, pocket-size flip phone? Here are the five of the best you can buy today.
Mobile

These are the best Moto Z4 cases to boost your new phone’s longevity

The Moto Z4 is the newest way to experience Motorola's flagship range. But just because it's cheap, doesn't mean that it's expendable. Make sure your new and beautiful Moto Z4 survives for a long time with one of the best Moto Z4 cases.
Mobile

Pixel 4 gets spotted in real world, showing not even Google can stop the leaks

Rumors abound about the Google Pixel 4, Google's next Pixel phone following the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a. Getting around the leaks, Google straight-up teased an image of the back of the phone. Here's what you need to know.
Home Theater

Diagnose and fix some common Apple AirPods problems with our handy guide

Apple’s AirPods are among the best fully wireless earbuds we’ve seen, but they’re not perfect. If you’re having trouble, take a look at our guide to the most common problems and what you can do to fix them.
Deals

Fitbit Versa and Samsung Gear fitness smartwatches get big Amazon price cuts

Some of the best options can get pretty pricey, but with smartwatch discounts on the Fitbit Versa and Samsung Gear Sport, they are really quite affordable right now. You can save up to $125 on a new fitness watch.
Mobile

These are the best Pixel 3a XL cases and covers to protect your Google phone

If you want to change up the look or feel of your new Google phone, you want some decent drop protection, or both, then we have you covered with this list of the best Google Pixel 3a XL cases and covers.
Deals

The best Amazon Prime Day 2019 deals: Leaked date and what you need to know

Amazon Prime Day 2019 is still a month away, but it's never too early to start preparing. We've been taking a look at the best discounts from previous Prime Days to give you our predictions of what to expect this year.
Photography

Tapped out? Edit faster with 5 gesture shortcuts in Lightroom CC on mobile

Missing those keyboard shortcuts when photo editing on a smartphone or iPad? Lightroom has a handful of gesture-based controls that can help fill the gaps, if you know where to find them.
Mobile

Learn how to create a 360-degree panorama with your phone and Google Street View

Google Street View encourages you to explore the great outdoors, including landmarks, natural wonders, and even your own neighborhood. Learn how to create 360-degree imagery using your smartphone camera to add locations to Google Maps.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Plant-based shoes and a ukulele learning aid

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!