Jarich on Facebook's OpenCellular: Old shirt, new starch, fancy designer label?

peter jarich

Peter Jarich

Back at the start of the month, Facebook announced OpenCellular, its open-source radio access platform. It wasn't that difficult to see it coming. 

Even before Mr. Zuckerberg and co. launched the Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP) back at Mobile World Congress, efforts like the Open Compute Project made it clear that Facebook is intent on disrupting the network infrastructure space with, "openness and disaggregation as methods of spurring innovation."

Since then, TIP testimonials from Intel, Nokia and Deutsche Telekom all suggested that radio access was high up on the TIP agenda. And the participation of Vanu – everyone's favorite software-defined RAN pioneer – did much more than suggest it. After all, it's already working to deploy cost effective access in woefully under-served areas. Pushing forward on RAN disruption in the name of connecting the unconnected only made sense.

It also wasn't too surprising that OpenCellular created a lot of buzz. You can dismiss the effusive Tweet, "Yep, it is happening and it will be awesome." That one came from OpenCellular itself (it's only Tweet so far).

But Facebook wasn't the only one excited. Much of the media looked at OpenCellular as a fait accompli or a "game changer." It's understandable. Given all that Facebook has managed to accomplish – and its intense interest in making friends with emerging market constituencies – who wants to bet against them?

I can't say that I want to bet against them. Yet, I'm not so sure that OpenCellular is going to have a massive impact on the market. It's not that I want it to fail. It's just that I feel like we've all been here before in some fundamental ways.

  • Open BTS: Remember Range Networks? They haven't been in the news much lately, so you can be forgiven if you answered "no." In any case, they drove the open-source OpenBTS project. To quote their own marketing, "Range's flexible software architecture and published APIs are opening up mobile network infrastructure and enabling a broad range of exciting new networks and network services." Sound familiar? They launched a development kit more than two years ago. And, the world isn't revolutionized yet?

  • Reference Designs: Base station reference designs have been available for years, and it's been possible for a would-be innovator to build their own RAN offers based on those designs whether or not they had been open-sourced. What's complicated matters and/or driven up costs? Intellectual property rights. The engineering required to deliver reliability. Antenna costs. Spectrum costs. Regulatory burdens. On-going network management costs. Validation and testing. I could go on, but you get the idea. The fact is, base station costs are a fraction of any site costs, many of which open source cannot necessarily innovate away.

  • Deployable Architectures: It is not news to Facebook that, "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." That is an actual quote from the launch post. As genius as the folks at Facebook are, they weren't the first company to recognize this. Indeed, base station architectures aimed at easing deployment (or making it less expensive) have been a focus for nearly every vendor under the sun.

    Network equipment incumbents like Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia and ZTE have been shrinking down their gear, but there are also companies like Parallel Wireless focused on leveraging IT efficiencies in the name of CapEx and OpEx efficiency. And a focus on the developing world isn't novel either. Take OpenCellular's concepts of simple-to-deploy gear with inexpensive backhaul and power (including solar) options and you get something that sounds a lot like India's VNL. Yep, it's a story they've been telling for a while.

Since TIP and OpenCellular launched, I've had the opportunity to talk with various vendors and service providers either directly involved in the projects or set to be potentially impacted. There's a lot of hope for what it can achieve. There's also a lot of hope that taking cellular technologies into the open source community can deliver disruptive innovation of the likes that we've never seen before. Even those who acknowledge that products coming out of OpenCellular probably won't meet mature market deployment need to figure the initiative should be able to drive innovation or at least deliver ways to support emerging market connectivity. 

One question still remains: How? (okay, it's a multi-part question)

How will the work that's already been done to deliver open, cost-effective, deployable solutions (work done outside of OpenCellular), be extended and pull in other parties? How will ecosystem issues that stretch beyond the base station get solved? How will the potentially limited revenue opportunity of lighting up the developing world engage new parties to get involved? How will Facebook and friends – not for a lack of trying – accomplish what hasn't been done before?

Kicking off OpenCellular was a natural extension of TIP. It was a smart – if not unforeseen – move in making good on Facebook's interest in connecting the unconnected. Now, all eyes need to be on the progress Facebook can actually make on delivering against the promise.

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.