Facebook's OpenCellular: an opportunity for emerging and established markets

Friday 8 July 2016 | 12:23 CET | Background
Facebook has introduced OpenCellular, an open source wireless access platform. The company's detailed announcement explains what it is, how it fits in the Facebook strategy, how it differentiates Facebook from Google and what it means for operators and suppliers. 

Google builds a business, Facebook lowers barriers

The same as Google, Facebook is out to connect more people to the internet. Google has a variety of activities for this, such as Google Fiber to bring fast broadband to American cities. While Google Fiber started in small neighbourhood developments, it already is present is cities with a combined population of 17 million and is considering expansion to almost 40 million. This makes Google Fiber (along with Nest) one of the biggest activities in Alphabet (after Google). Other Google projects, such as Loon (air balloons), SkyBender (drones), Link (a fibre ring in Africa) and Fi (MVNO in the US), are of more limited scale. 

Facebook has a completely different approach, although it does have projects on balloons and drones for rural areas as well. Much more significant are its projects Internet.org, which under the name Free Basics subsidies data costs in developing countries (sponsored data), and Connectivity Lab. The latter focuses mainly on developing telecom infrastructure through projects such as Open Compute Project (focused on data centres) and the Telecom Infra Project. While Google is building a new business with Google Fiber, Facebook's infrastructure projects are working more on lowering costs for operators and stimulating internet use.

Open source lowers infrastructure costs

Facebook's specifications for OpenCellular:

  • The aim is to connect areas without internet access, especially rural areas. The means is lowering the cost of the supporting infrastructure. Hardware is preferably manufactured locally.
  • A test supported voice, SMS and data services, and Facebook said it is "interested in finding new applications for the technology and wants to hear ideas from the community". The first version of the platform will be released this summer. Subsequent versions are expected to achieve even lower costs and greater efficiency.
  • Further development is expected from partners in the Telecom Infra Project. This includes suppliers such as Nokia, Intel and Juniper Networks and operators like Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica, SK Telecom and MTN. It also wants to work with OEM/ODM partners.
  • The hardware and software will be made open source and modular. Support is expected for 2G, LTE and Wi-Fi. The hardware is made of two subsystems: "1. General-baseband computing (GBC): power (various sources), housekeeping microcontroller, microprocessor, timing/sync module, sensors (to monitor temperature, voltage), control mechanism, 2. Radio with integrated front-end, based on SDR or SoC, supports two configurations: network-in-a-box (if combined with GBC board) or AP (SoC version)". Functions include "management system (remote), hardware design, baseband, amplifier, filter, mounting device, antennas".

Facebook's expectation that suppliers will contribute to the project is somewhat surprising, as this poses a clear threat to their business. Nevertheless, "if you can't beat 'm, join 'm". Players such as Nokia may see not just a threat but an opportunity in the project.

Opportunities for newcomers and dark fibre

Facebook is emerging more and more as a leader in the work of lowering the costs of expansion and densification of mobile networks. This will benefit emerging markets. It is clearly a neutral party. Of course Facebook has an interest in attracting more users and advertising revenue, but Facebook is neutral when it comes to the nature of the infrastructure. The only issue is whether it works and if it's cheap.

Notable is the large number of participants in the named projects, although a few major suppliers (such as Ericsson, Huawei, ZTE) are missing.

On paper there is also an opportunity for more developed markets, especially newcomers there (e.g. Iliad in France and Italy, Swan in Slovakia, MyRepublic in Singapore, ICE in Noorway, Ukko in Finland, Telecom Egypt, Reliance Jio in India). Of course they will still need to have access to spectrum (unless they focus on Wi-Fi) and set up backhaul. The latter offers opportunities for dark fibre operators such as Eurofiber and CityFibre.

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