Date Published: 21st July 2016

This week, Facebook unveiled it’s latest creation: OpenCellular, a device that can be attached to a landscape feature such as a tree, street lamp or a telephone pole, and drive a wireless network.

The hardware device will be able to drive small Wi-Fi networks similar to those in homes and offices, as well as traditional 2G mobile phone networks and higher speed LTE cellular networks. The platform will be available in various options, ranging from a network in a box to an access point – and the hope is that the device will be able to bring wireless networks to rural parts of the developing world in a simple and inexpensive way.

The success of such a plan could have significant implications for those living in remote and/or impoverished areas, as well as for businesses across the globe.  As it stands,  there is not much of a pull factor for businesses to set up shop in rural villages, and limited ability (if any) for local businesses to get online. OpenCellular, however, could change that.

According to Facebook’s calculations, more than 4 billion people still don’t have access to the Internet and about 10 percent of the world’s population lives outside the range of existing cellular networks.  Not only is OpenCellular a philanthropic venture, but it’s a smart business move for Facebook. The social network is currently used by more than 1.5 billion people worldwide across multiple continents, so naturally the best way to expand its online empire is to expand the reach of the Internet.  Alongside OpenCellular, the social media giant is building a wide range of new hardware devices capable of pushing the Internet into new parts of the world, including flying drones and communication lasers.

It is worth noting that the device still requires power and some sort of ‘backhaul’ connection to the Internet, such as a wireline cable. However, developers are working to keep power requirements to a minimum, and are also working on antennas that could provide wireless backhaul, which would stream Internet signals from cities out into rural areas.

Facebook has no intention of becoming an Internet service provider; its hardware design, firmware and control software will all be open source. Facebook is also not interested in selling this new hardware, and the aim is to give it away, so that a community of players can build new networks.

There still several barriers to overcome before the device will be the new normal; the issues of powering the device in remote areas still exists, as well as whether such devices will be accepted by some of the areas and countries at which it is being targeted. Still, this is one to watch.




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