In its latest attempt to connect the unconnected, Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) said it has designed and tested an open source and cost-effective, software-defined wireless access platform. The company said it plans to open-source the hardware design and related firmware and control software so that telecom operators, OEMs and others can build and operate wireless infrastructure based on the platform.
Facebook's first design of the
Called OpenCellular, the system is composed of two main subsystems: 1) General-purpose and base-band computing (GBC) with integrated power and housekeeping system and 2) radio frequency (RF) with integrated analog front-end. Facebook is currently testing the system in labs at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California, and is working with OEM and ODM partners to make the OpenCellular platform widely available.
"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," wrote Facebook engineer Kashif Ali in a Facebook Code post. Ali added that Facebook also aims to partner with Telecom Infra Project (TIP) members to select trial locations for further validation of technical, functional and operational aspects of the hardware.
Facebook announced TIP earlier this year, but U.S. operators like AT&T and Verizon have been notably absent from its membership roster. Nokia, Intel and Radisys are among its members.
Facebook said that despite the widespread global adoption of mobile phones over the last 20 years, the cellular infrastructure required to support basic connectivity and more advanced capabilities like broadband is still unavailable or unaffordable in many parts of the world. "At Facebook, we want to help solve this problem, and we are pursuing multiple approaches aimed at improving connectivity infrastructure and lowering the cost of deploying and operating that infrastructure," Ali wrote.
As mobile operators know well, traditional cellular infrastructure can be expensive, and the economics don't pencil out for deploying infrastructure in rural or remote areas where fewer people are there to pay for services. Ali said 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.
On the radio subsystem, Facebook said it created multiple options based on a software-defined radio (SDR) or system on chip (SoC) scenario. The SDR and SoC versions support various open source and commercial cellular stacks.
Facebook developed hardware that is designed to withstand some of the harshest conditions in the world, including high winds, extreme temperatures and rugged climates. 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.
"We will continue to work on OpenCellular by iterating on the design to further reduce the cost and improve efficiency," Ali wrote. "We will collaborate on this with members of the community by soliciting feedback and ideas, and we're interested in finding new applications for the technology and want to hear ideas from the community."
Of course, myriad players are trying find ways to connect the unconnected. One of the more famous examples is Alphabet's (NASDAQ: GOOG) efforts to expand internet service via its Project Loon, which uses balloons launched high in the stratosphere to get coverage in hard-to-reach areas.
Others, like O3b Networks, are launching satellites in order to serve the "other 3 billion," or, what might be more like 4 billion nowadays. Facebook's Ali said as of the end of 2015, more than 4 billion people were still not connected to the internet, and 10 percent of the world's population were living outside the range of cellular connectivity.
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