Facebook’s Open Cellular GSM base station comes out of the shadows and goes on sale – a new way to address Africa’s remote areas

13 January 2017

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One of the first products from Facebook’s Telecom Infra Product will shortly see the full light of day: an Open Source, low cost GSM base station designed with remote areas in African countries in mind. Russell Southwood spoke to Maxime Dumas, Head of Strategy and Business Development, NuRAN Wireless who are acting as “the supply chain arm”.

Facebook has been involved over the last several years several trying to make mobile voice and data more ubiquitous, particularly in continents like Africa. One element has been the zero rated Free Basics service which allows users access to Facebook and a walled garden of other sites for free. This has proved controversial as it imposes privileged access to certain sites over others. Facebook maintains that it is just a way of expanding the number of people with access to the Internet and taking over the Internet is not its long-term goal.

Meanwhile Facebook has sought to tackle the same issue through another initiative, its Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which we covered in relation to its impact on Africa in issue 835:

The initiative is not solely aimed at developing markets as one of its initiatives is aimed at how to deliver 1 gbps access in high population density areas to cater for things like VR that will impose stresses on existing infrastructure. It is developing both products and technology to address getting this kind of capacity access.

TIP has several working groups but the one that seems most relevant to Africa is the Open Cellular Group which one source described to us as “the most active and tangible.” It has two things it’s focused, one is an open source GSM base station and the other is a base station that can deliver LTE differently for remote areas.

Each is at a different stage of development. The GSM base station can be called a product whereas the LTE base station is a technology demonstrator. It is designed to look at whether it is feasible or indeed, profitable to deliver LTE connections to rural areas. The overall working assumption is that some areas will only be about voice and SMS but may evolve to data later.

The GSM version is Open Source both in terms of software and hardware: all the files describing it are openly available. Whilst there are a number of companies producing low cost GSM base station equipment, it's a key differentiator is that it’s Open Source.

It’s designed to disrupt the bigger monopoly players in the equipment space, producing something that works at a lower CAPEX cost. Another source said that it was designed to be at an “accessible price” It offers a slightly a smaller coverage area (1 km) and has a 2W maximum output.

NuRAN Wireless, which is acting as the “supply chain arm” for this GSM base station produces its own more powerful low cost base stations but says:”We see it as complementary. We have customers requesting even lower power consumption than our 15-20W product. It’s a simple basic installation with a single solar panel and a 1 km coverage radius.”

One variant of the base station might best be described as “a GSM network in a box”, which would allow it to be set up and operating in a small community without necessarily needing – in the first instance – to interconnect to a mobile operator. But the business model discussed envisages it being operated with an interconnect into a mobile operator and using their spectrum as a franchise, maybe with 50-100 units in a particular area.

With this product, TIP will select a number of partners to create “engineering samples” to show that it works. It will take 5-10 organisations and provide support to them to help develop the product.

TIP wants to work with smaller groups or companies where there is a lower level of expectation than if they worked with say MTN. They can get their hands dirty developing the product:”The idea is to make the product available to anyone on the planet, possibly in a Q2 timeframe.” The plan is to create a website where people can purchase one-off units and they will be dispatched within 1-2 weeks.

NuRAN Wireless comes into the picture because TIP doesn’t want to be a manufacturer and so it acts as the supply chain arm, managing the sourcing and manufacturing of the product:”We’ve put our name on it. It’s a field we know very well. We’ve been involved in some of the design aspects.”

The LTE base station is at an earlier stage in its development and may not yet be optimal in terms of all its remote area operating requirements. It’s seen as a version that will stimulate innovation and is not yet ready for longer production runs. The move to a fully developed version, more akin to the maturity of the GSM product, probably sits at least 12 months away.

As can be seen from the outline descriptions above, the issue to be solved is posed very much as a technology problem. There’s a whiff of “if we build it, they will come” about it. To be fair, part of the issue is about the cost of technology: this is the equivalent of the shift from buying several hundred dollars worth of equipment from a vendor to buying something metaphorically out of the catalogue.

But the big issues in terms of getting to remote areas remain regulatory. An African mobile operator is licensed for spectrum on a national basis and therefore current talk is all about franchising spectrum from national operators. The reality is that existing operators have little or no intention of rolling out to these uncovered areas and there ought to be a way of redeploying spectrum in uncovered remote areas to widen the possible business models.

The other issue is the cost of satellite to connect remote areas back into the network. Satellite prices have come down but they remain challenging for anyone trying to make sense of a remote area as a business. Balloons and drones may one day do this but they are also several years out in terms of operating deployments.

So in this context what are sales expectations for the GSM unit?:”The numbers that are around already indicate it could be quite a lot. Mexican regulator IFETEL has identified 105,000 communities that are not connected. If you take a conservative estimate that would then mean that maybe there were 15-25,000 communities that might connect. And that’s only in Mexico…”

“I think it will pick up slowly but gain momentum as the unit is optimized. If we’ve not sold 2,000 in a few months, then something’s gone very wrong. Over the next 2-3 years I would expect to sell several hundred thousand units.”

Dumas sees the next five years as “the golden age of rural connectivity”. The operational availability of wholesale models like VANU for mobile operators has opened the door. They can now get out of defensive mode and allow others to invest in areas they were always unlikely to cover. He also sees a number of places where existing operators are franchising their spectrum to smaller operations:”Three to four years ago that would not have been possible. Two to three pioneers have paved the way.”

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