Facebook to launch OpenCellular, an open-source mobile networking framework

The world’s largest social network today announced that it will launch OpenCellular, a mobile infrastructure platform designed to lower barriers to entry for would-be providers of internet service to the developing world.

OpenCellular, in essence, is designed to be a customizable base chassis for a wireless access point, able to connect devices using 2G, LTE or even Wi-Fi. Facebook said that the emphasis in the design process was on keeping the design as modular and inexpensive as possible, as well as making it easy to deploy.

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“[W]e designed an innovative mounting solution that can handle high winds, extreme temperatures, and rugged climates in all types of communities around the world,” said Facebook engineer Kashif Ali in a blog post. “The device can be deployed by a single person and at a range of heights — from a pole only a few feet off the ground to a tall tower or tree.”

The system can handle both open-source and commercial cellular stacks, work as either a simple access point or a full network-in-a-box, and take power from PoE, solar, DC and internal and external batteries, and Facebook said that both the hardware design and the software running on OpenCellular will be made open-source eventually, though it did not specify a date.

The project is Facebook’s latest foray into providing internet connectivity to underserved areas, alongside the massive Aquila drone and a range of other speculative plans, including networked UAVs, super-high-efficiency wireless antenna arrays and a controversial Free Basics service option. (Free Basics would have offered internet service to people in rural India, but that service would have been limited to Facebook and a limited number of other sites selected by the social network. Critics denounced it as violating Net Neutrality principles and it was banned by India earlier this year.)

In any case, Forrester Research vice president and principal analyst Jeffrey Hammond said OpenCellular looks to be the terrestrial end of Facebook’s plans for spreading internet access around the world. Critically, he told Network World the open aspect of the project means that it could help make OpenCellular compatible with more endpoints.

“I’d expect that there will be a way to upload from an Open Cellular location to a drone, as opposed to having to create handsets that would use it directly,” Hammond said. “That way, commodity tech like cheap Android phones could easily get added to the infrastructure [Facebook] is building out.”

This project to provide internet access to the underserved, he added, is not a wholly altruistic endeavor. More internet users mean more customers for Facebook’s service, which means more viewers for the ads that power the network’s bottom line.

“These OpenCellular devices are the razor, and FB ads are the blades,” said Hammond. “I’m sure it’s consuming a fairly large team of developers and hardware folks, but that cost is still small compared to the ad revenue that a few hundred million (or billion) additional users could drive for them.”

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