Facebook's OpenCellular is an open source wireless access platform designed to bring connectivity to remote areas of the world. Today it joined a list of innovative solutions aimed at connecting the world, especially the developing part of the world, to the Internet.
Connecting The Next Four Billion
According to various reports, more than 4 billion people do not have access to the Internet and about 10 percent of the world’s population lives outside the range of already existing cellular networks.
As a result of this, there have been various projects undertaken to connect, especially those in Afrika and other parts of the developing world, to the Internet.
First is the "extraterrestial" project by Google called Project Loon.
Explanation of how Project Loon works | Google Project Loon
Quite an exciting project by Google which, in summary, looks to fly a form of hot air balloons in the earth's stratosphere which will provide Internet access especially to Afrika and other parts of the developing world.
How feasible is Project Loon and what progress has Google made?
Well, the last time we heard of Project Loon on the continent was thanks to a sheep farmer in the Karoo area (between Strydenburg and Britstown, South Africa), who had just found a Google Project Loon balloon that crashed on his sheep trailer on his farm.
There's also Outernet, which as the company explains is targeted at the developing world.
Outernet Features | Outernet
Currently, Outernet is multicasting on six satellites which they say cover 99% of the human population. Oh, to get connected to the Outernet satellites, you need to purchase their $99 receiver or the $35 Outernet Tuner for Raspberry Pi.
Then there's Facebook with various projects aiming to do the same thing (connect the next 4 billion to the Internet) albeit in different ways.
They have the widespread and in some parts infamous (and banned) Free Basics project. Which, if you distill it, is more like an Internet users "on-boarding" project for them and the network providers they partner with as users of Free Basics only have access to a limited set of websites and a "watered down" version of Facebook.
You want more?
Mobile Operator Partnership Program | Free Basics by Facebook
Facebook also have a project named Aquila, which sees the use of solar powered drones hovering above the earth looking to connect people to the Internet (I just hope they don't crash into Google's balloons).
Closer to reality and likely quicker to implement in Afrika, is their announcement of OpenCellular.
OpenCellular is small sized hardware device that attaches to a tree, street lamp, wall or telephone pole from where it can drive a wireless connection including a 2G to LTE networks and smaller Wi-Fi networks within homes or offices.
Components of the Open Cellular system (L-R): strap, mounting bracket, enclosure, RF board, GBC board. | Facebook
Closer to home, it also turns out that Kenya was one of the testing grounds for Facebook's OpenCellular. An on-the-ground deployment team from Facebook made its way from Kenyan refugee camps to inland villages in order to hack together new methods for getting people online.
Speaking of Kenya, I can't help but notice the similarities between Facebook's OpenCellular (whose full technical specifications and pricing are not yet available) and Kenya's BRCK, which also aims to connect the next 4 billion to the Internet.
BRCK Features | BRCK
The BRCK is a Kenyan designed and developed hardware device that deals with last mile Internet connectivity in areas such as bus stops, kiosks, homes and schools, to name a few.
Quite similar to what OpenCellular by Facebook wants to do in providing Internet access to remote areas and areas not covered by cellular networks.
In a way, BRCK proves that African led solutions can lead the way for tech innovation not just locally but globally as well. So far, they have rolled out BRCK Education, an initiative built to help solve the problem of providing remote schools with digital material.
Additionally BRCK's Kio Kit customized drop and water resistant tablets, earphones and plugs to provide wireless charging, all in rugged cases have been reported to be an instant hit with most schools within Nairobi where they've been deployed.
The BRCK comes with a (maximum, i.e. no 4G/LTE unlike OpenCellular which has LTE capability) 3G enabled or without SIM card option, an antenna to attach to a GSM port when out of signal, charge from a solar panel, car battery, computer or wall, an upgradable 4GB of on-board storage, ability to top up credit on your SIM card from anywhere in the world and a rugged design suited for harsher environments.
But it seems this, ruggedness, is where BRCK's advantages stop when compared to Facebook's OpenCellular.
The similarities between both BRCK and OpenCellular's value propositions are uncanny, I wouldn't blame you if your mind went wild and believed Facebook copied (and improved on) the BRCK, feature for feature.
Facebook's OpenCellular, unlike the BRCK, can work even when a backhaul connection goes down. It comes equipped with an antenna that broadcasts a wireless signal and the core networking hardware that is needed to process this signal. This means if a signal is lost, one can still communicate locally, send and receive texts or make calls.
"It appears that the wind has been taken out of BRCK's sails, as OpenCellular appears to be a much more robust product." - Ikwap Amos
From a design and engineering point of view it is also important to note that OpenCellular is modular in design compared to the BRCK which is a monolith, much like a, well, BRICK. This modular design, according to Facebook, will enable "various existing and forthcoming cellular and wireless standards." Quite a benefit considering Moore's Law when it comes to technology and the likelihood of faster connectivity available in a year or so without having to buy a new device.
There's also the matter of Facebook’s financial clout, since they are in better position to scale out their operations and are in position to reach an audience of 1,5 billion users worldwide. This move by Facebook will certainly leave BRCK likely feeling trapped and and slightly handicapped.
All said, it seems Facebook took a leaf from BRCK's strategy and came up with a viable solution that could render BRCK useless.
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