Facebook bolsters NuRAN’s aim to connect ‘the next billion’

NuRAN network (NuRAN)
Image: NuRAN

NuRAN Wireless, a Canadian company with about 45 employees and signal processing roots going back to 1983, is getting a bit of a boost from Facebook. As part of Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project (TIP), NuRAN’s strategy, which includes its LiteRAN 2G offering, is being validated as a way to serve remote areas that have little or no access to traditional telecom infrastructure.

Last week, during Facebook’s first TIP Summit in Menlo Park, California, NuRAN announced it is working with Facebook and TIP as an OEM and distributor for OpenCellular, an open source wireless platform that Facebook is promoting in order to reach remote areas.

NuRAN gear (NuRAN)
Image: NuRAN

NuRAN designs outdoor GSM small cells, built from the ground up, for low-cost solar-powered remote locations. NuRAN will be supplying and supporting OpenCellular, which is going to be the subject of trials with select operators.

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Although TIP is open to operators around the globe – and it’s already attracted the likes of Bell Canada, Telefonica and Orange – U.S. Tier 1 operators have so far stayed on the sidelines. That may come as no surprise given that at least the OpenCellular piece of the project is not targeted for developed countries.

Although NuRAN has customers in the U.S. and Canada for its products, OpenCellular is really about targeting rural areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, as well as Central America and South America, according to Maxime Dumas, head of strategy and business development at NuRAN, who presented at Facebook's conference last week. 

The project is targeting the OpenCellular platform for general availability in the first quarter of 2017 so that a broader audience, including big operators and academia, R&D labs and others, can become familiarized with it. The plan calls for putting together a transactional website where people can place orders and test units. No special handsets are required. “We’re talking about developing countries, so many of them will have phones that are pre-2000,” Dumas said. The platform is made for GSM and the bands generally supported are 900 and 1800 MHz.

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While there are plenty of initiatives to reach the unconnected, including Facebook’s own initiatives involving drones, this one is made from the ground up to connect people in remote areas, as NuRAN does with its own 2G products, usually targeting communities of less than 5,000 people in areas beyond the reach of the grid. While there might be monopoles and trees to house infrastructure, they can’t count on towers like those found in developed nations. The gear is small and lightweight.

While NuRAN’s history can be traced as far back as 1983 when it did digital signal processing for audio synthesizers, it started doing software-defined radio back in 2002, with products intended for research labs and universities to conduct experiments and develop their own applications. Its initial deployment efforts started in 2004, and in 2007, it started designing small cells, like pico and femtocells, for other companies as well as itself. By 2011, the company was designing outdoor GSM small cells built from the ground up for low-cost solar-powered remote locations.

At Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2016, Facebook’s TIP was just getting off the ground. By the next MWC in 2017, OpenCellular will be much more mature and in a more concrete form to show the audience, and NuRAN expects to be able to talk more about its own offering.  If there’s one thing Facebook knows, it’s how to bring a lot of people together, and if everything goes as planned, NuRAN may be in a much better position to make things happen.