Facebook OpenCellular & The Future of Wireless Internet

Posted by Alex Misevski on November 10, 2016

Facebook recently launched a shoe-box sized internet platform that can be mounted on a tree, street lamp, or telephone pole that’s robust enough to survive harsh weather conditions. Also known as OpenCellular, it’s one of the many research outputs from the tech giant’s Open Compute Project (OCP).

Its mission is to provide open source server, storage, and data center hardware that’s efficient and scalable. OCP is a non-profit organization composed of industry leaders from Google, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Seagate, Dell, and Ericsson, just to name a few. Recently, financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America joined the foundation, and all are working together to create better designs that are free for all.






Image 1: Some of the members of the Open Compute – Networking Project
Source: Open Compute

As you may have imagined, OpenCellular is just the tip of the iceberg. Aiming to improve wireless internet access to remote areas of the world, Facebook’s new tech forms only a fraction of a grander ecosystem of revolutionary open source machines that will forever change the landscape of IT infrastructure. OCP is dubbed the “Linux of hardware” because, just like its software forefather, it’s expected to disrupt the dominance of network monoliths. By allowing anyone to use and modify the designs of expensive computers and hardware, it’s pushing Cisco’s expensive network tech to an expedited retirement – just like what Linux did in the 90s when it disrupted the Microsoft and Unix market monopoly.

Over the last three years, OCP has saved Facebook a total of $2 billion. It has also open-sourced a lot of its data center hardware and has implemented studies from OCP further optimizing its infrastructure. A perfect example is the newly built Luleå data center in northern Sweden, located 70 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Luleå is a 27,000 square meter data center that runs on hydroelectricity and uses fresh air as its cooling system.

So, What Exactly is Facebook OpenCellular?

In its simplest form, Facebook OpenCellular is an access platform that’s nimble enough to be deployed as a network box. It is created to be modular and can be configured to fit existing and future standards of the location where it will serve. OpenCellular can also be easily scaled up or down depending on user demand. It can serve everything from a small suburban community to a densely populated city with a very low capital and operational expenditure.

Figure 2: OpenCellular Access Platform
Source: Facebook Code

Facebook said that they will soon make the blueprints open-source – allowing for more cost efficient manufacturing, distribution, installation, and support. In tapping localized manufacturers and lightweight supply chains, cellular operators in developing countries will not be threatened. Instead, by using Zuck’s tech, they can bring down costs and reach a wider market – including remote areas which cannot be reached by traditional infrastructure. In fact, Facebook, through the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), is planning to pilot this technology in the Philippines through the country’s local provider - Globe Telecom.

The hardware is designed to be economical both in its manufacturing and energy consumption. Facebook and TIP envision that local materials will be used in production. The platform will consist of two subsystems – General baseband computing (GBC) and Radio with integrated front-end.

Figure 3: OpenCellular Components
Source: Facebook Code

GBC takes care of power management, allowing the machine to accept energy input from various sources such as solar power, batteries, and power-over-Ethernet (PoE). It also has temperature, voltage, and current sensors, enabling it to consume power efficiently. Other than this, the GBC subsystem provides OpenCellular a housekeeping microcontroller, timing/sync module, control mechanism, and a state-of-the-art microprocessor.

Radio, the second subsystem, operates based on software-defined radio (SDR) or system on chip (SoC) supporting both commercial and open-source cellular stacks. This can be implemented two ways – a full network-in-a box where the GBC board already contains the daughter card; or an access point where the daughter card is working independently.

Figure 4: OpenCellular Subsystems
Source: Facebook Code


The Ripple Effect

This free wireless internet service through the OpenCellular platform is a jumpstart towards a paradigm shift. On his Facebook page, Mark Zuckerburg succinctly described how this technology will change everything we know about the internet:

On our journey to connect the world, today we announced OpenCellular -- an open source wireless access platform to bring connectivity to remote areas of the world.
More than 4 billion people still don't have basic internet access, and one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to reach remote areas existing infrastructure doesn't cover.
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.

We at Zang believe that OCP opens a lot of opportunities not only for start-ups, existing solutions, hardware vendors, software developers, and engineers but also to developing countries all over the world. 

Here’s our take:

1.  OCP expedites improvements in IT infrastructure and network technology through the collaboration of IT leaders to create open-source hardware and software blueprints. This means that developers and engineers can freely use these to build anything they want!
As a result, OpenCellular is expected to bring forth a whole new ecosystem of start-ups and products. Better careers for hardware designers also await, since sharing trade secrets will no longer be forbidden. Values such as collaboration and knowledge distribution will create a ripple effect in the tech space that will forever change how we set-up our datacenters, code, and host our systems.

2.  OpenCellular creates an opportunity for businesses to create a whole new line of product and services portfolio, reaching new markets and overall increasing revenue.
Since the launch of OCP in 2011, quite a significant number of hardware and software businesses, including Penguin Computing, HP, and Nokia, have made themselves OCP partners, serving as official vendors providing machines and equipment designed from OCP research.
A lot of start-ups were also inspired by OCP. For instance, Coolan was founded by a former Facebook employee, Frankovsky left the company to create an optical-storage business, and a former OCP executive launched Vapor, a data center business that utilizes Open Compute tech. 

3.  OCP is expected to bring down internet prices.
Once providers started shifting to this new technology and new players enter the market, internet prices are predicted to plummet. Consumers will now have better and cheaper alternatives, providing more high speed connections for better video, music, and podcast streaming.

4.  Open source hardware is beyond capitalism. It is a noble and grand idea that will improve the disposition of developing countries all over the world.
Through OCP, communications will be improved, knowledge can easily be shared, new jobs will be created, and telecommunication costs will be lowered. This tech will literally change the lives of people in remote villages - living in mountains and islands that even electricity cannot reach.

For the past few years, Facebook has been working hard to push initiatives that will provide free internet to the world. With the launch of Internet.org and their solar-powered drones, OCP can help in the social media giant’s vision to reach those 10 percent of the world’s population living outside the range of cellular connectivity. As Zuckerberg said: “OpenCellular is the next step on our journey to provide better, more affordable connectivity to bring the world closer together.” 

Changing the Landscape of IT Infrastructure

OpenCellular, together with the Open Compute Project, are changing the landscape of IT infrastructure. OCP tech will soon topple down IT infrastructure monoliths by making the use and modification of expensive computers and hardware free for all. But this movement is not only limited to tech titans. Developers and engineers can join the foundation as an individual to learn and contribute. You can start here.

Topics: OpenCellular, development, Web access