Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project: What is it good for?

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Facebook set up the Telecom Infra Project in 2016 to drive open source standards in core telecoms hardware and network operations. In this report we examine the implications of this project for telcos and other industry players, and recommend how they should respond.

Introduction

In early 2016, Facebook launched the Telecom Infra Project (TIP). It was set up as an open industry initiative, to reduce costs in creating telecoms network equipment, and associated processes and operations, primarily through open-source concepts applied to network hardware, interfaces and related software.

One of the key objectives was to split existing proprietary vendor “black boxes” (such as cellular base stations, or optical multiplexers) into sub-components with standard interfaces. This should enable competition for each constituent part, and allow the creation of lower-cost “white box” designs from a wider range of suppliers than today’s typical oligopoly. Critically, this is expected to enable much-broader adoption of networks in developing markets, where costs – especially for radio networks – remain too high for full deployments. Other outcomes may be around cheaper 5G infrastructure, or specialised networks for indoor use or vertical niches.

TIP’s emergence parallels a variety of open-source initiatives elsewhere in telecoms, notably ONAP – the merger of two NFV projects being developed by AT&T (ECOMP) and the Linux Foundation (Open-O). It also parallels many other approaches to improving network affordability for developing markets.

TIP got early support from a number of operators (including SK Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, BT/EE and Globe), hosting/cloud players like Equinix and Bandwidth, semiconductor suppliers including Intel, and various (mostly radio-oriented) network vendors like Radisys, Vanu, IP Access, Quortus and – conspicuously – Nokia. It has subsequently expanded its project scope, governance structure and member base, with projects on optical transmission and core-network functions as well as cellular radios.

More recently, it has signalled that not all its output will be open-source, but that it will also support RAND (reasonable and non-discriminatory) intellectual property rights (IPR) licensing as well. This reflected push-back from some vendors on completely relinquishing revenues from their (R&D-heavy) IPR. While services, integration and maintenance offered around open-source projects have potential, it is less clear that they will attract early-stage investment necessary for continued deep innovation in cutting-edge network technology.

At first sight, it is not obvious why Facebook should be the leading light here. But contrary to popular belief, Facebook – like Google and Amazon and Alibaba – is not really just a “web” company. They all design or build physical hardware as well – servers, network gear, storage, chips, data-centres and so on. They all optimise the entire computing / network chain to serve their needs, with as much efficiency as possible in terms of power consumption, physical space requirements and so on. They all have huge hardware teams and commit substantial R&D resources to the messy, expensive business of inventing new kit. Facebook in particular has set up Internet.org to help get millions online in the developing world, and is still working on its Aquila communications drones. It also set up OCP (Open Computing Platform) as a very successful open-source project for data-centre design; in many ways TIP is OCP’s newer and more telco-oriented cousin.

Many in the telecom industry often overlook the fact that their Internet peers now have more true “technology” investment – and especially networking innovation – than most operators. Some operators – notably DT and SKT – are pushing back against the vendor “establishment”, which they see as stifling network innovation by continuing to push monolithic, proprietary black boxes.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • What does Open-Source mean, applied to hardware?
  • Focus areas for TIP
  • Overview
  • Voyager
  • OpenCellular
  • Strategic considerations and implications
  • Operator involvement with TIP
  • A different IPR model to other open-source domains
  • Fit with other Facebook initiatives
  • Who are the winners?
  • Who are the losers?
  • Conclusions and Recommendations

Figures:

  • Figure 1: A core TIP philosophy is “unbundling” components of vendor “black boxes”
  • Figure 2: OpenCellular functional architecture and external design
  • Figure 3: SKT sees open-source, including TIP, as fundamental to 5G

Technologies and industry terms referenced include: , , , , , , , , , , ,