More than 4 billion people still don't have basic internet access. One in five of these unconnected people lives in hard-to-reach places. The challenge is in how to reach the remote areas where majority of these people live, and to deploy solutions that bridge the gap not covered by existing infrastructure.
It appears that the quest to bridge the infrastructure gap and get these online has attracted the attention of social media giant Facebook.
On his page, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the launch of OpenCellular, an open source wireless access platform designed to bring connectivity to remote areas of the world.
Free Basics, formerly internet.org, is a stripped down, 'zero-rated' walled garden that provides access to Facebook and other pre-selected services and websites for free through mobile operators.
Since it is an infrastructure project rather than just a Facebook access initiative, OpenCellular is less likely to face resistance from regulators. It would also give Facebook much more control over what sort of traffic will be carried on it.
🌍: Facebook Open Cellular can be deployed as a "network in a box" up to an access point supporting 2G to LTE. pic.twitter.com/P58ParTpdN— iAfrikan News (@iAfrikanNEWS) July 7, 2016
"On our journey to connect the world", Zuckerberg's post goes on, "we designed OpenCellular as an open system so anyone can build and operate wireless networks in remote places.
The device is about the size of a shoebox and can support up to 1,500 people from as far as 10 kilometers away.
This isn't Facebook's first foray into delivering internet access to remote areas, and it isn't the most outlandish either. There's Aquila, the solar-powered drone that would beam high-bandwidth lasers from the stratosphere, and OpenCellular is the next step on our journey to provide better, more affordable connectivity to bring the world closer together.
As it turns out, Kenya was one of Facebook's testing grounds for new connectivity technologies, with Wired reporting earlier in the year that an on-the-ground deployment team would be making its way from Kenyan refugee camps to inland villages to hack together new methods for getting people online. It should be interesting to see if OpenCellular will be one of the technologies that came out of this.
Facebook is currently testing the system out, and so far they have been able to get 2G services to work at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California, with further trials expected in other locations.
OpenCellular uses open source hardware, and it is designed to be mounted on a pole or tree to boost its reach. It is built to withstand high winds, extreme temperatures, and harsh climates. It's a fairly compact bit of kit that can be deployed at a significantly lower cost than traditional network infrastructure. This cuts out the need to invest in expensive telecommunications infrastructure.
It will be a while before Facebook perfects and rolls out OpenCellular, but it represents a massive shift in strategy, going for control of the platform that 4 billion potential new internet users will get online on.