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Facebook’s shoebox-sized attempt to bring internet to remote communities

Justina Crabtree; special to

Facebook has unveiled a new platform to bring the internet to the remotest communities in the world – and it can fit inside a shoebox.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted images of OpenCellular, the new technology system, on his personal profile page on Wednesday, describing it as, "the next step on our journey to provide better, more affordable connectivity to bring the world closer together."

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
Pau Barrena | Bloomberg | Getty Images

So far, OpenCellular enables the sending and receiving of SMS messages, as well as voice calling and 2G basic data connectivity. Despite its small size – which means that it can be attached to a tree or streetlamp – it can provide connectivity for up to 1,500 people as far as 10 kilometers away, according to Facebook's developer blog. The technology system can apparently handle extreme weather, so as to serve people in as varied environments across the globe as possible.

Facebook now boasts more than 1.6 billion users, but is looking to expand into less connected parts of the world. At the end of 2015, 4 billion people still did not have access to the internet, according to Kashif Ali, the Facebook engineer who published the platform's launch page. Ten percent of the global population was still living beyond the range of cellular connectivity, he added.

Facebook plans to make designs for the technology open-source. Whilst the social media giant itself is not strictly in the wireless industry, through OpenCellular it intends to initiate a business environment in which smaller operators can challenge larger internet service providers by bringing connectivity to rural communities.

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Martin Garner of analysis firm CCS Insight, told CNBC via email: "Facebook has plenty of development options with its own services and doesn't aspire to doing the job of network operators. Its main motivation here is to help change the economics of radio networks, in order that more of the world can get online and then use Facebook services."

But, Facebook's efforts to enter emerging markets – such as those in parts of Africa or India – have been criticized in the past. A prior attempt involved the ill-fated internet package Free Basics in India, which was unpopular for the monopoly it enabled the company and its partners, and was effectively blocked by India's telecommunication's regulator.

"Facebook's moves in the telecoms world are always viewed with suspicion," Garner said. "Once it is open-sourced, OpenCellular will succeed if it can stand on its merit as a technical approach, rather than being seen as a Facebook initiative."

Facebook is currently testing OpenCellular at its headquarters in California, with a view to initially implementing the device "this summer".

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