The device, which Facebook calls OpenCellular, looks like a breadbox and can be mounted on trees, poles and other objects. Pair it with a source of electricity — such as a battery or even solar power — and it can do all sorts of things to connect people, Facebook says. You can hook it into an existing cellular network so mobile phones can start receiving data; depending on how the device is configured, it can transfer everything from simple 2G data to ultra-fast LTE. It has a range of about six miles.
OpenCellular can also work without an Internet connection, essentially acting as an offline hub that still allows phones and computers to interact with one another over a local network.
Facebook believes this device, whose design is being open-sourced so non-Facebook people can tinker and experiment with it, could help make it cheaper to expand cellular connectivity. Some of the biggest costs associated with building out networks have nothing to do with the actual cellular base station and everything to do with the various inputs that go into supporting it. This includes things like tower construction, permits and paying for power and connectivity to the rest of the network, a behind-the-scenes technology called "backhaul."
While OpenCellular would still need many of these things to run as a fully functional cellular tower, Facebook thinks open-sourcing the design will make it easier for many players to jump into the game, driving down costs.
Facebook also envisions these devices as an integral part of its own effort to build a global Internet-access infrastructure. The company has already invested in drones that could essentially hover for long periods of time and beam down Internet signals, as well as laser technologies that can carry data at high speeds.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday that OpenCellular represents the next step after those innovations, and it's not hard to imagine that these devices someday might talk directly to the drones and satellites ferrying Internet data from halfway around the globe.