Facebook has announced the release of the Community Cellular Manager (CCM), a complete “network in a box” suite that will enable the operation of small-scale cellular networks on the OpenCellular platform announced in June.
With OpenCellular, CCM, and an open source software radio stack, it is now possible to build an entire functional 2G cellular network with open source components; from hardware to routing to management to interconnectivity. The code is available on GitHub.
CCM allows users to get connected through OpenCellular or other third-party radio access network (RAN) solutions. Developers can also build small-scale cellular networks through CCM in their own communities. It is designed for use in environments with unreliable power, providing fully disconnected access for local voice and SMS services.
CCM is designed to work seamlessly with Facebook's OpenCellular, and it appears to target the same niche that BRCK is working on – rural areas, where traditional methods of building network infrastructure are not feasible due to the high cost involved. It can be run as a stand-alone system by small community network operators, or as a network service by larger operators who wish to leverage the power of community networking in rural areas.
People in areas without network coverage can install and operate the networks using local knowledge, infrastructure, and tooling, dramatically lowering the expense of bringing access to areas far from traditional centralized infrastructure.
The system has been successfully deployed in a rural area of the Philippines, giving cellular connectivity to communities that were previously unconnected. Following this, the model of rural cellular access will be scaled out to other areas in the Philippines, and no doubt to other unconnected parts of the world as well.
With grand projects such as the solar-powered Aquila that beams lasers to the ground to connect users to the internet, and now more practical on-the-ground solutions like OpenCellular and CCM, Facebook's financial clout and apparent willingness to go the extra mile to gain an even bigger user base are becoming more apparent. This could leave African startups hanging in the wind, even in areas where they have made the first move.
Responding to the announcement of OpenCellular, BRCK's David Kobia acknowledged that there were challenges when it comes to building a hardware product in Africa.
Doing a tech startup in Africa is so intensely difficult that it requires the kind of fervor that could lead one to madness. Try and imagine building a product, going through the challenges of finding talent and raising money while dealing with issues of who can raise money and who can’t, and what actually constitutes a real ‘African’ tech startup.David Kobia, Director of Software, BRCK
Mark Zuckerberg did meet with BRCK representatives during his time in Nairobi, so it remains unclear how the two will compete in the space, or if this situation could signal a potential collaboration.
Guess who paid us a visit ;-) pic.twitter.com/EiJKaccxNc— BRCK (@brcknet) September 1, 2016
What's clear is that Facebook is taking the race to reach the 4 billion people not online seriously. The social networking giant appears to be pushing aggressively into the connectivity space, with a number of projects to connect the unconnected by bridging the access gap caused by a lack of infrastructure, and by zero-rating access to Facebook. The latter has met some opposition, primarily because it goes against the fundamentals of net neutrality, so it appears that the focus has shifted to infrastructure initiatives.