Facebook Opts for Open Source Platform to Connect Remote Regions of the World

After the India's Telecom regulatory body ruled against the Facebook service, the social media giant is coming back with OpenCellular, a small device which can be deployed for creating wireless networks.

by Sadhana Chathurvedula Mint, New Delhi / July 8, 2016

(TNS) -- Facebook’s mission to “connect the world” by offering people free access to some parts of the internet with Free Basics hasn’t worked out—at least in India where it had to pull the plug on its service because of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai) ruling on net neutrality. But that doesn’t mean the company has stopped trying.

On Wednesday, it announced OpenCellular, an open-sourced platform aimed at improving connectivity in remote areas of the world.

Facebook isn’t doing this out of pure altruism. Most people who use the internet end up using some of Facebook’s services, but as newer platforms such as Snapchat come to the fore and as usage patterns continue to shift, it continuously needs to innovate.

“Facebook is still growing rapidly, but at some point one of the biggest limiting factors on its ability to grow is going to be limits on the number of Internet users. As such, it has strong incentives to get additional people online as a way to keep its funnel of potential users growing. The Free Basics strategy is obviously part of this, but its Internet.org efforts in general and these new connectivity projects are all part of the same picture,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst, Jackdaw Research, a US-based research firm.

OpenCellular comes in the form of a small device which can be deployed for creating wireless networks as well as an access point for 2G networks or even high-speed LTE networks.

Facebook will contribute OpenCellular designs to the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), a project it announced at the Mobile World Congress in February, in which it is working with companies like Nokia, Intel and Telefonica on equipping under-served and un-served areas with wireless connectivity.

Facebook also has a technology dubbed ARIES, which is a set of wireless antennas that can transmit internet services to devices that are kilometres away, as well as drones that can do the same. Google too launched a similar initiative with Project Loon which will deliver Internet to rural regions via balloons.

Earlier, in 2011, Facebook spearheaded a project called the Open Compute Project, with which it works with major companies across the world, including Intel, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Ericsson, Cisco and Juniper Networks, to modernise data centre computing and networking hardware.

As installing traditional cellular infrastructure can be quite expensive, widespread growth in rural areas is difficult, spurring Facebook to design in such a way that the infrastructure costs are lowered.

“In many cellular network deployments, the cost of the civil and supporting infrastructure (land, tower, security, power, and backhaul) is often much greater than the cost of the cellular access point itself. 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,” wrote Kashif Ali, an engineer at Facebook in an official blog post announcing the initiative.

These are still very early days for OpenCellular—the company is still testing in its labs. However, along with the other initiatives it has been launching it’s clear that Facebook thinks it needs to shake up the telecom and networking hardware world for a really connected world.

“I’d expect Facebook to continue to experiment with different ways of driving growth in Internet penetration until it finds something that works, especially in a major market like India, which has to be enormously important for Facebook given its sheer size,” said Dawson.

An e-mail sent to Facebook for comment wasn’t answered till the time of filing the report.

©2016 the Mint (New Delhi) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.