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A former Facebook engineer wants to help you make your own cell network

A former Facebook engineer wants to help you make your own cell network

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Ukama is selling boxes that let you broadcast your home internet connection as LTE. It envisions people using it to build a crowd-sourced cell network.

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Image of several white plastic devices on a wood table — one somewhat cylindrical, one large rectangular one, and a small, book-like one.
What does it take to build a cell network? According to Ukama, these devices.
Image: Ukama

A new company wants to let you become your own cell carrier, using your internet connection even when you’re away from home — and roaming onto the networks of other people doing the same. The company, helmed by former Facebook engineer Kashif Ali, is called Ukama, and it’s launching a crowdfunding campaign on engineering and maker-focused site Crowd Supply to get its devices out to people willing to try out the tech and start building the network.

Ukama’s selling a few different pieces of hardware, set to be delivered next summer, according to Ali. The main piece is the $799 Tower Node, which is made to be mounted outside on a roof or building so it can broadcast out your home internet connection via a signal that can reach over half a mile away. There’s also a $549 amplifier for the Tower Node, a $599 Home Node for indoor use, and a $499 module that acts as a base for a build-your-own cell radio.

Image of Ukama’s control panel, which looks like a relatively simple web-UI.
The company’s trying to make it easy to create and manage a network while still giving tinkerers and radio nerds tons of access.
Image: Ukama

The company promises the nodes are both easy to use and hobbyist-friendly, pitching them as “plug-and-play just like a Wi-Fi router, or fully customizable like a software defined radio.” You can manage nodes locally, using an API, or with Ukama’s cloud-based service, which it says will always be free for community users.

A note on crowdfunding:

Crowdfunding is a chaotic field by nature: companies looking for funding tend to make big promises. According to a study run by Kickstarter in 2015, roughly 1 in 10 “successful” products that reach their funding goals fail to actually deliver rewards. Of the ones that do deliver, delays, missed deadlines, or overpromised ideas mean that there’s often disappointment in store for those products that do get done.

The best defense is to use your best judgment. Ask yourself: does the product look legitimate? Is the company making outlandish claims? Is there a working prototype? Does the company mention existing plans to manufacture and ship finished products? Has it completed a Kickstarter before? And remember: you’re not necessarily buying a product when you back it on a crowdfunding site.

To connect to the network, you’ll need an Ukama SIM, which can be either physical or digital (good news for people who bought the eSIM only iPhone 14). When you’re within range of your node, the SIM routes your calls and texts through to your regular carrier while making sure that data goes through your personal network. When you’re out of range, you can switch back to your normal carrier, but there’s also the option of signing up to Ukama’s roaming data plan, which will use more traditional cell networks but provide “very competitive rates based on country,” according to the company’s press release. In the US, it estimates this’ll be around $8 per gigabyte.

The current plan is for roaming onto other peoples’ Ukama nodes to be free — though Ali admits this isn’t a plan that’s fully set in stone. “This is where having the nodes in people’s hands, via the CrowdSupply campaign, will help shape it,” he said, adding that if Ukama ever monetized that sort of roaming, a “very significant portion” of the fees would go to whoever’s connection you were using.

Cell networks need to cover a lot of ground to be useful for most people — just ask Dish

Obviously, building a cell network isn’t easy, especially when you need a lot of individuals and businesses to buy into some not particularly inexpensive hardware if you want to have a meaningful service. (Okay, yes, it’s definitely less expensive than other ways to create a cell network, but in absolute terms, $500–$800 is a lot of money.) And while decentralized networks do exist — oftentimes because underserved communities need to fill gaps in traditional coverage — it’s still a pretty niche interest among the general population.

Ali, who worked on FaceBook’s rural-connectivity OpenCellular project, said that a coverage map of the Ukama network is on the roadmap for next year and that the company plans to address privacy concerns “via VPNs,” similar to Google’s Project Fi. He also said that people with nodes could choose not to let other people use them — for example, he said, if a company was using it to create a private network for itself, it probably wouldn’t want to let members of the public use its network. As for why a company would choose an Ukama-based network over Wi-Fi, he said that the cellular tech is “more secure as it has SIM-based authentication and over-the-air encryption.”

The Home Node was meant more for consumers, Ali said, while the Tower Node is built for entrepreneurs or service providers, as well as businesses looking to create their own private networks. “We envision there will be folks who might have access to outdoor locations, e.g., their rooftop, where they can deploy the outdoor unit (Tower Node) and provide coverage to many people in the block,” he said. “Others could be local coffee shops, restaurants, etc.”

Photo of a person standing next to a solar panel, which has an Ukama tower node on top of it.
You could even deploy the Tower Node in a backyard, if you really want.
Image: Ukama

In the US, Ukama will use Citizens Broadband Radio Service (or CBRS) spectrum, part of which is allocated for companies and members of the general public who want to make their own networks. There have been a few attempts at utilizing CBRS for crowdsourced networks before; a company called FreedomFi has been publicly testing its gateway since 2020 and has since been bought by Nova Labs — the company involved with the crypto-powered Helium network that wasn’t used by Lime and Salesforce despite those companies’ prominent placement in the “used by” section of its site. Helium is also planning to launch its own cell network partially powered by user-owned devices, but that also has a cryptocurrency component that I can imagine would put people off the service.

There are also a few carriers, such as Dish in the US and Rakuten Mobile in Japan, building out what are known as open radio access networks, which use non-proprietary hardware and software. It’s a similar idea — using less expensive hardware and software to make it easier to deploy a network — but the equipment and technical expertise are still way beyond the reach of most average consumers.

It’s hard to say whether the idea of smaller-scale network building, especially involving individuals creating their own networks, will become an important part of our communications infrastructure in the future. On the one hand, I would love to see networks that aren’t dependent on big carriers (though if they’re powered by home internet connections, they’ll still be dependent on traditional ISPs). On the other hand, it also seems like an uphill battle to get enough people into the idea to make an actually useful, cohesive network. There’s also the question of whether running your own cell network that other people might use will get you in trouble with your ISP — certainly, people would need to be mindful of their data caps. Still, it’s exciting to see projects attempting this pop up, especially ones with maker- and DIY-friendly plans.