If you’ve ever thought of a future where you’re not beholden to your cell phone provider’s crazy contracts and ever-increasing data packages, so has Facebook. The social network today announced the launch of OpenCellular, an open-source wireless platform that aims to make it easy to set up a cellular network.
The box and accompanying software are designed for easy installation and cost effectiveness such that just about anyone could set it up in their local community or business. Facebook plans to begin shipping these devices later this summer, which will allow users to then send and receive SMS messages, make voice calls, and use basic data connectivity over a 2G to LTE network as well as a wifi service.
But this announcement is bigger than that. Facebook is the only one offering a service like this now, but undoubtedly others will look to compete for those billions of people who live without cell service.
It’s still very early, but there’s a lot of potential for a device like this to revolutionize the way we think of cellular data in five key ways.
5. Drive Down Prices
Last year, Americans used 804 billion megabytes of data a month totaling 9.65 billion gigabytes for the year. That’s an increase of 136 percent year over year, which allowed the wireless industry to take in $200 billion just in 2015 from all of that usage.
It’s not because there are so many more cell phone users, although that’s part of the reason. It’s because consumers are streaming more music, videos, and podcasts on the go than ever before, which raised the demand for high speed connections.
At the same time, companies such as AT&T, DirecTV, Time Warner Cable, and Charter Spectrum continue to hash out merger deals that only create less competition.
If an economics class ever taught you anything, it’s probably that when demand is high and supply is low, prices will rise as Verizon just did today.
An open-source cell phone box could chip away at that system. There are plenty of users out there that would love to ditch Verizon for a cheaper solution that allows for more control. While it’s early days — Facebook can only “send and receive SMS messages, make voice calls, and use basic data connectivity using 2G” — tech improvements will make DIY cell networks a legit competitor.
Even if not everyone wants to set up their own box, it would force providers to compete in other ways as well, such as adding additional services, creating more high speed connections, or, better yet, drive prices down.
4. Rural Areas Benefit
Cell service providers don’t have a lot of incentive to set up infrastructure in rural parts of the world. By its nature, there are fewer people in rural areas and it’s expensive to set up a network of towers to a group of people who won’t generate a profit for the company.
The FCC is trying to change those incentives in America, but it’s slow-going.
OpenCellular brings the possibility that these communities could access high speed internet for personal use, running a business or educational opportunities in school.
3. Open Wifi Networks
For a number of reasons, wifi isn’t the open connectivity system it claimed to be in the beginning. You still have to ask the barista or bartender for the wifi password — and you certainty can’t walk down the street using only wifi.
Perhaps local communities could band together to make that future a reality. CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post that the shoe-box sized device can support up to 1,500 people from as far as 10 kilometers away on a cell service. Perhaps the same could be done for wifi and allow small communities to make their own connected cities.
2. Giving the World Internet
Facebook has pushed initiatives that tackle the lack of internet connectivity around the world in the past, including the launch of Internet.org and the announcement of solar-powered drones that can beam down the internet. Facebook is looking for ways to help those parts of the world get online, which also means getting on Facebook:
As of the end of 2015, more than 4 billion people were still not connected to the internet, and 10 percent of the world’s population were living outside the range of cellular connectivity. Despite the widespread global adoption of mobile phones over the last 20 years, the cellular infrastructure required to support basic connectivity and more advanced capabilities like broadband is still unavailable or unaffordable in many parts of the world.
Even a cynical outlook that claims Facebook is just looking to increase its advertising revenue can’t deny the fact that the internet is a powerful tool that can help billions of people around the world. Zuckerberg still thinks it’s possible, as he wrote today: “OpenCellular is the next step on our journey to provide better, more affordable connectivity to bring the world closer together.”
1. Innovation From the Community
Since there isn’t much competition among cell phone service providers, that means there hasn’t been much innovation either.
By making its platform open-source, Facebook is hoping the good people of the internet could take the lead and come up with new, undiscovered tweaks to our cellphone towers. For example, maybe your small town is super into the Bachelorette and internet starts to get really slow on Mondays. Locals could potentially tweak the system themselves to better fit the town’s needs, rather than relying on the big corporations.
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