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Facebook Has a Plan to Take Cellular Data to the Sticks

Project aims to place access points in trees and lampposts to pump 4G data into remote communities.

Facebook has launched a new open source wireless access platform called OpenCellular that will provide both hardware and software to set up small-scale cellular networks. Its aim is to allow the poorest parts of the world to get online using their phones.

While cell phones are pervasive in the developing world—ownership of a mobile device in many African countries is comparable to that in the U.S., for instance—access to cellular data is far more rare. Instead, people tend to rely on SMS. And there are, of course, plenty of spots in the Western world where it’s a struggle to get a data signal.

OpenCellular is Facebook’s plan to help solve that problem. It’s a first attempt to create a more affordable means of rolling out wireless network access points in either the developing world or remote parts of more developed countries. The kit bundles together some basic controlling hardware and radio chips inside a cheap plastic case, which can then be strapped to something—a tree, a lamppost, or any other nearby tall object.

The system does require what’s known as a “backhaul”—a connection to the Internet, usually provided by a wired connection or, perhaps, by drone or balloon passing overhead. Without that data link, though, the hardware can still allow locals to communicate with each other, just not the rest of the world.

So far, tests have shown that the hardware can be used to send and receive SMS, voice calls, and data over a 2G connection. But Facebook claims that it’s working to ensure that OpenCellular will be able to support LTE. Over time, the company says, it will make designs for the entire system freely available as an open source platform—from the controlling software to the amplifiers, filters, mounting devices, and antennas.

OpenCellular is part of a larger Facebook-led initiative, known as the Telecom Infra Project, that draws together major telecom companies—including Deutsche Telekom, SK Telecom, Intel, and Nokia—to design and build new kinds of wireless networks hardware. It’s already been pushing 5G and super-fast public Wi-Fi projects.

The plan isn’t for Facebook to step into the world of wireless as a hardware provider. Instead, it’s all part of a more strategic plan: more connectivity means more subscribers for carriers and, ultimately, more folks on Facebook.

(Read more: Facebook, “Facebook Is Testing a Super-Speed Public Wi-Fi System,” “Facebook Enters the Race to Build 5G Networks”)

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