Facebook Open Sources the RAN with OpenCellular: What Now?

Peter Jarich
Peter Jarich – VP, Consumer Services and Service Provider Infrastructure

Summary Bullets:

  • Facebook’s OpenCellular looks to bring Internet connectivity to rural and unconnected users thanks to open sourcing the designs for a new RAN platform.
  • Simply open sourcing its RAN designs is far from sufficient for OpenCellular to be successful, much less change the world.

The dead of summer is usually a quiet time for major telecom news. Multi-week European vacations get in the way of launches, and introductions from trade shows earlier in the year simply exhaust the set of innovations available to make noise about. So, when early July sees a new radio access network (RAN) launch from a tech darling (and telecom outsider) like Facebook, it’s big news.

Or is it?

Facebook’s OpenCellular platform promises an open-source RAN offer, supporting multiple technology standards (2G to 4G) in a compact, hardened package. The idea is to allow vendors to innovate on top of the platform in an effort to bring connectivity to rural and remote areas. We might ask why the social-media giant is looking to drive RAN innovation with open source. Is it honestly looking to connect the unconnected? It is looking to make friends with service providers and regulators in emerging markets where its Free Basics program has been met with animosity? Is it just an example of Silicon Valley innovation looking for new markets to disrupt? Whatever the objective, OpenCellular clearly fits with the Facebook’s Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP) launched at Mobile World Congress this year and the company’s stated goal of driving the pace of telecom technology innovation. It only makes sense, then, that Facebook plans to contribute OpenCellular to TIP especially as momentum looks to be growing behind it. Heck, in joining the TIP, Nokia even noted that it planned to publish an open interface allowing “development of innovative new radio solutions for new market segments.”

With the launch behind us, what comes next? What’s the next step forward in revolutionizing the RAN?

Launching an open-source platform is the first step. Driving vendors to develop upon it needs to follow. Here, there are some real reasons to question whether we’ll still be talking about OpenCellular in July 2017 and whether or not it can democratize the cellular industry.

What’s the Opportunity? Just how much money a vendor might make from selling low-cost RAN gear into rural or remote areas is unclear. Selling (and integrating) a handful of these base stations into sparsely populated or poor regions may be a tough sell where scale is key to making money on the opportunity. For its part, Facebook may need to offer up incentives to make them move. Will it?

What’s the Total Cost? Facebook’s OpenCellular launch post notes that, “in many cellular network deployments, the cost of the civil and supporting infrastructure (land, tower, security, power, and backhaul) is often much greater than the cost of the cellular access point itself.” And while the new platform may be small, that will only serve to alleviate some of those costs. Site rental will be needed. Spectrum will be needed. Backhaul will be needed. Even if OpenCellular can drive new design and packaging efficiencies – and that’s unclear, as vendors have been innovating on this front for years – those efficiencies can only overcome a marginal component of network deployment costs.

Where’s the Data? As tested, OpenCellular is still a 2G proposition. If the goal is to provide voice connectivity, that’s sufficient. If the goal is data connectivity (and, circa 2016, it should be), it will need to move quickly on proving its 3G and LTE capabilities.

How About Go-to-Market? It’s not unheard of for new vendors to break into the RAN. Take Parallel Networks and the success it has had with EE, M1 in Singapore, and at the Super Bowl this year. But, there’s a reason why this is news. It’s not easy for small vendors to sell into service providers which are accustomed to dealing with – and have procedures for sourcing from – RAN incumbents. Technology aside, selling into service providers isn’t easy. The risk-to-reward ratio in RAN innovation, then, is pretty high. Any vendor looking to get on board with OpenCellular will doubtless recognize that.

Combining a household name like Facebook with the laudable goal of connecting the un-connected, OpenCellular was bound to the one of the rare telecom innovations that make their way on to the nightly news. Only time will tell if it can execute on its promise.

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