Facebook and Vodacom testing OpenCellular platform to get rural areas online

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Two years ago Facebook announced OpenCellular, an open-source project aimed at building hardware that will allow mobile operators to offer connectivity cost effectively in rural and other under-serviced areas. Vodacom’s parent company, Vodafone, announced at Mobile World Congress today that it’s been trialling OpenCellular in South Africa and India, while other trials by other operators are also underway in countries like Pakistan.

Johan Wibergh, Group Chief Technology Officer at Vodafone says testing will be expanded to 200 base stations in Africa and India in coming months, and that from what the operator has seen so far “it works really well at significantly better cost”.

OpenCellular supports connectivity from 2G up to 4G, and Wibergh says the constraints on spectrum in South Africa don’t present any challenges to the project because it’s being tested where there is “sparse to no connectivity” and so licensed spectrum is plentiful. He says the project won’t do anything to address the limited spectrum South African operators have access to, but that it should help the operator expand its coverage in chronically underserved parts of the country.

Beyond getting previously unconnected people online — which could grow operators’ user numbers, albeit with low-income earners — one of the benefits of OpenCellular is reduced capital and operation costs.

Asked if he sees OpenCellular potentially helping with the other great South African connectivity challenge — the high cost of data — Wibergh says, “Of course. We’re interested in whatever we can do to help lower costs,” but also emphasises that its very early days for the trials and will be some time before anything can be rolled out commercially.

Though Vodacom’s trial is initially SA-focused, he says the trial will likely be expanded to Vodacom’s other African markets in due course. He says he expects it’ll be at least six more months before Vodacom is able to assess the results of the South African trial and plan its next move.

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