With more than 4 billion people still without access to the internet, and about 700 million living in remote areas that lie outside cellular coverage, how does one make connectivity possible?
Facebook's answer: open-source technology.
The company has just unveiled OpenCellular, an open-source wireless access platform designed to give cellular access to people living off the grid in far-flung communities and also those without the means to pay for costly wireless network services even in urban neighborhoods.
Building Low-Cost Cellular Access
While critics are skeptical of Facebook's motive in getting more people connected via cellular and wireless networks, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg remains committed to his "journey to connect the world."
Mobile technology has indeed paved the way for millions around the globe to stay connected. In reality, though, the infrastructure necessary for opening up these gateways to connectivity remain costly in some of the poorest and remotest villages on the planet.
This is where OpenCellular comes in. The team at Facebook hopes to lower the cost of setting up and maintaining cellular infrastructure, and democratize access even more by open sourcing its tools, from the hardware to the firmware. It is tapping the expertise of everybody, from telecom operators and OEMs to researchers and entrepreneurs, to build on the team's latest output.
Because the current ecosystem for cell networks is "constrained," Facebook says, the expansion of these networks has also slowed.
In certain projects, for instance, the cost of securing the land and building up the cell tower is often much greater than the cost of the cellular access point itself, Facebook engineer Kashif Ali explains.
OpenCellular As A 'Network-In-A-Box'
Unlike the traditional cell tower setup, OpenCellular has its own computing and storage capabilities contained all in one box. The system can function either as a "network-in-a-box" or simply as a cellular access point.
The platform will also be made compatible with a wide range of wireless network standards, including Wi-Fi, 2G and LTE.
"Anyone can customize the platform to meet their connectivity needs and set up the network of their choosing, in both rural and urban areas," Ali adds.
The modular design of OpenCellular will allow current and upcoming wireless and cellular networks to easily adopt the system, and let OEMs manufacture the hardware cost-efficiently.
With a simple installation process, the box itself will rely on existing structures, such as a pole or rooftop, to keep setup costs to a minimum.
OpenCellular is currently being tested at the Facebook Headquarters, says Ali.
"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," he adds.
Facebook is aiming to partner up with members of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) to gain the support of an open source community well versed in cellular access technology. The company is eager to receive feedback on other possible applications of OpenCellular.