And now Facebook is in the base station business with OpenCellular

ITEM: Facebook has launched an open-source wireless access platform designed to let operators – or anyone else, really – deploy wireless coverage in remote areas.

The OpenCellular platform – which was designed as part of Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project (TIP) – can support everything from 2G to LTE connectivity, as well as Wi-Fi.

It looks like this.

The hardware includes a general-baseband computing (GBC) subsystem, which consists of power, housekeeping microcontroller, microprocessor, timing/sync module, sensors, and control mechanism, and a radio subsystem with an integrated front-end that comes in two flavors: a software-defined radio (SDR) version or system on a chip (SoC) version. Both versions can be configured as a network-in-a-box when the daughter card is combined with the GBC board, while the SoC version can be used as a standalone access point.

According to this blog post from Facebook engineer Kashif Ali, OpenCellular was designed to be modular, scalable, rugged and easy to mount anywhere at any height. Moreover, it’s designed so that anyone can deploy a cellular network:

The hardware was designed with simplicity in mind, to encourage people to deploy their own cellular networks. Many people might not realize that running their own cellular networks is not only possible but also doesn’t require substantial technical expertise.

One thing OpenCellular is missing is the backhaul link. However, Facebook has been working on that too – apart from left-field ideas like laser drones, Facebook recently demoed a Massive MIMO technology called ARIES (Antenna Radio Integration for Efficiency in Spectrum) that can not only transmit 71 bits per second per hertz while serving 24 people, but can do it at distances of tens of kilometers.

Moreover, OpenCellular is designed to work without a backhaul link. You won’t be able to reach the global internet, but you can make phone calls to anyone within range of the antenna and access any local server connected to it.

(Note that this isn't a new idea – AltoBridge had a similar idea years ago with its rural cellular solutions that utilized a satellite backhaul link but could also work as an independent intra-village network. Also, Nokia’s LTE Network in a Box solution, announced last year, can also provide localized without a backhaul link, although it’s designed more for industrial sites or temporary deployment situations such as natural disasters.)

Facebook’s Kashif Ali says the first implementation of the platform will be available “this summer”, but adds that this is just the initial reference design: “… it will be an ongoing effort developed with community support.”

Indeed, Facebook’s own lab tests so far indicate OpenCellular has a ways to go:

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. We also aim to partner with TIP members to select trial locations for further validation of technical, functional, and operational aspects of the hardware.

[…] We will continue to work on OpenCellular by iterating on the design to further reduce the cost and improve efficiency. 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.