Facebook’s OpenCellular – Another disrupter in cracking Africa’s remote area nut?

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Facebook’s OpenCellular project is designed to open up new ways of connecting the unconnected and designed to work with its other infrastructure initiatives, solar-powered aircraft Aquila and high-bandwidth laser beams. Russell Southwood looks at the barriers it might face in Africa.

Facebook’s OpenCellular was announced by Mark Zuckerberg in – where else would it be? – a Facebook post earlier this month. The announcement had a tantalizing amount of detail but was light on some of the specifics required to assess it. For example, there were no projected unit costs.

According to Zuckerberg:”We designed OpenCellular as an open system so anyone -- from telecom operators to researchers to entrepreneurs -- can build and operate wireless networks in remote places. It's about the size of a shoe box and can support up to 1,500 people from as far as 10 kilometers away”.

“Along with our solar-powered aircraft Aquila and high-bandwidth laser beams, OpenCellular is the next step on our journey to provide better, more affordable connectivity to bring the world closer together. Facebook’s OpenCellular is a new open-source wireless access platform for remote areas.” More detail can be found at here: 

The work seems to have two underlying objectives: firstly, to redesign the cost base of base stations; and secondly, by doing this to make a more satisfactory business case for remote area users.

Up until now, companies and organisations have sought to tackle these challenges in different ways. There are a number of low cost base station vendors (including Range Networks) but these have not fared well. Mainstream mobile operators have not had an appetite to rollout to remote areas (except as corporate social responsibility projects) and/or wanted to add a niche equipment vendor to their list. Indeed IFC backed Altobridge went bankrupt because it was unable to make sufficient sales.

The second approach has been to try and find ways of offering mobile operators a way of accessing remote areas without the capital risk of investing. Both Vanu  and Virural are offering versions of wholesale models for mobile operators to reach remote areas. Vanu’s offer includes a scaled down antenna that creates micro-cells that can reach people on the roads or main tracks they use.

Argon Telecom and Mawingu have gone the route of offering localized Wi-Fi hot-spots that have the long-term potential of voice if regulatory conditions change. Mawingu used TV White Spaces spectrum but the Kenyan regulator has not licensed it so they have reverted to ISM spectrum.

There are also a number of other contenders that fit into the type of approaches described above.

So where does Facebook OpenCellular fit into this landscape? From the descriptions given, it is designed to be the equivalent of a “GSM network in a box”. So a remote area could use a single to connect villagers in a radius of 10 kms subject to geographic conditions. According to Facebook:” 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”.

The last statement is a bit glib but there are a number of players who might take on such a task: a community based organization, an ambitious local entrepreneur or an NGO serving local communities in remote areas.

Having voice and data connectivity would undoubtedly be an enormous advantage to a local area but ultimately this island of connectivity would need to connect into a network somewhere: either a data network or a mobile operator. Currently, the number of African countries where this kind of mobile interconnect is straightforward is relatively small.

But if this is a remote area, how do you get to the networks of other operators? Well, you’ve got solar-powered aircraft Aquila and high-bandwidth laser beams, other TIP developed projects. In the meantime, the alternative is expensive satellite backhaul which was always one of the largest cost elements that have put off existing operators going to remote areas. Solar-powered aircraft and high-bandwidth laser beams might drive down satellite bandwidth costs but the timeline for their deployment is unclear.

Like the low cost base station operators, OpenCellular has re-engineered the base station to have a lower physical footprint and cost:” 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. One of our goals was to make architectural and design improvements that would result in lower costs associated with the civil and supporting infrastructure”.

Facebook has cleverly pitched the idea simultaneously at both independent entrepreneurs (“to encourage people to deploy their own cellular networks”) and at operators. It stresses that operators are involved in its Telecom Infra Project. Some of these operators are people like Deutsche Telecom (whose consultancy arm works with operators in Africa) and SK Telekom which operates an LTE wholesale network for the Rwandan Government and is bidding for a third mobile licence in Senegal.

The problem remains one largely of business case and the push-and-pull dynamics in this one are not entirely clear. With Facebook’s name behind it, it should be possible to get an independent operation working in a liberalized country like Kenya. The existence of such an operation (with some encouragement with Universal Service money) would presumably encourage Safaricom to take greater interest in remote areas and use the Facebook equipment.

But in countries where this kind of competitive urge cannot be introduced, it is hard to imagine that existing mobile operators will be any more enthusiastic than they are about existing low cost base stations. Unless…They do one or two as corporate social responsibility projects or the equipment is genuinely an order of magnitude cheaper and therefore the proposition is irresistible.


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