BT takes TIP into phase two and towards commercial reality

The Facebook-inspired Telecom Infra Project (TIP) has shown how the mobile industry could achieve a new cost base and a new open ecosystem in 5G, bringing itself more into line with sectors like WiFi.

Now it is entering its second phase, in which we will see whether it really can result in an innovative, broad vendor landscape delivering carrier-class equipment while remaining open. That is the goal, and the reason many operators are supporting TIP, to try to break the stranglehold of a few vendors, and so to drive down their future network costs. But it is a tough challenge for a newly formed network of incubators and start-ups to catch up with the quality and performance of the equipment into which Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia have invested billions of R&D dollars, and millions of man years of experience.

Facebook and its backers point to the disruptive impact of its older initiative, Open Compute Project (OCP) on the server and storage markets. The aim of TIP is to do the same for telecoms equipment, commoditizing the hardware around open platforms and interfaces and lowering the barriers to new providers. The second phase of the TIP program was kicked off by one of its most fervent operator supporters, the UK’s BT, ahead of the TIP annual summit in October in London.

BT is one of several operators to have set up a TIP Ecosystem Acceleration Center (TEAC), to incubate the kind of start-ups which will create the new ecosystem. Others include Orange, Deutsche Telekom and SK Telecom. In all cases, the selected start-ups get the chance to pitch their products to the TIP community and potentially to gain venture investment from their sponsoring telco.

The UK operator is the first to move to a second wave of start-ups, and is running a competition focused heavily on mobile technology and on intent-based networking (IDN). The winners will be based in the TEAC at the BT Innovation Labs in Martlesham, Suffolk and in London’s Tech City.

“TIP was created to help tackle some of the big challenges in telecoms, boosting global connectivity by supporting big ideas,” said Howard Watson, CTIO of BT. “We’re particularly interested in start-ups with innovative ideas on how to deploy mobile networks cost-effectively in rural areas, as we look ahead to the roll-out of 5G services. Intent-based networking is another area with huge potential, helping networks to manage themselves and ‘self-heal’ to underpin more reliable services.”

Another way in which companies can access support and funding is through TIP’s OpenCellular Grants (OCG) program, which was launched to fund and accelerate non-traditional and open platforms, particularly those focused on bringing internet access to underserved rural areas (a key objective for Facebook, to drive usage of its services, and of its initiative).

So far, 11 awards have been made under the OCG program, with successful projects including community networks in Nicaragua, Columbia, Brazil and South Africa; a humanitarian connectivity project in Nigeria; remote connectivity solutions in Mozambique, Mexico and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and a training center in Thailand.

Within TIP, the OpenRAN Project Group recently marked another significant step towards commercial reality, with Vodafone and Telefónica both issuing RFIs (requests for information) from vendors to evaluate how they would support the OpenRAN requirements. The results of the RFIs, and the vendors which meet the requirements, will be announced at the TIP Summit.

“The vendor technologies presented in response to these RFIs will be evaluated using clear benchmarks that will help guide operators towards the selection of a shortlist of vendors,” according to a TIP blog. “Respondents are invited to submit comprehensive information describing the current state of their products and development plans for the next year. Only RAN nodes which demonstrate open interoperability from the perspective of the baseband processing platform, radio hardware, software and business model will be evaluated within this process.”

In one way, this looks like a radical open source approach being pulled back towards telco norms. Already, TIP has had to introduce a paid licensing process, in addition to its open source activity, to enable manufacturers of new-style equipment to participate. It’s one thing to offer software freely and then build a services model around that in order to monetize; that becomes a lot harder when base stations are involved and some TIP start-ups had said they were unwilling to contribute the inventions which were their key differentiator.

Now we see big operators issuing RFIs in the traditional way, presumably to big OEMs (among others). An RFI is often a precursor to an RFP (request for proposal), and the telcos’ RFP processes are notorious for requiring significant resources just to respond.

So it remains to be seen whether initiatives like TIP OpenRAN will end up with limited impact – an interesting way for operators to share ideas and tap into innovation in the broader ecosystem, but in the end, still relying on the usual vendors to turn MNO requirements into commercial systems.

Or this could be the first step in something more disruptive. For instance, new vendors may be announced as meeting the requirements, which would be a step to fulfilling the goal of many of TIP’s operator supporters, of shaking up the supply chain and introducing new providers alongside, or even instead of, the giants. And as the blog states, no player will be considered if it does not demonstrate interoperability.

The move to an RFI is positive because it shows that, after about a year, the OpenRAN group has achieved concrete requirements which are sufficiently unified and specific to be put out to the market. That will counter some critics who say open initiatives are little more than talking shops, which do not fit into the telcos’ established procurement processes.

And we have to remember that, before OpenRAN was set up, TIP had already helped to set new rules and expectations for the future mobile network. Facebook, for instance, had already contributed its OpenCellular small cell and Terragraph 60 GHz backhaul designs to TIP, providing specifications for vendors to build low cost, open access points, MIMO antennas and millimeter wave radios. This was all about commoditizing hardware elements which have traditionally be expensive and proprietary, and OpenRAN will complement that by working on the virtualized, software aspects.

The RFIs will also put pressure on the large vendors to make some difficult decisions. Will they accept these operator specifications, even though they are likely to undermine their traditional economics and architectures? Or will they try to spread FUD (fear uncertainty and doubt) about unproven architectures and the perils of open source fragmentation and security, and hope the fad goes away?

It will be a gamble either way, but eventually, it will be in the MNOs’ interest to get the big data center and network equipment vendors on board to bring scale to the market, and surround the new platform with deep knowledge of the telco business and legacy systems.

The relatively quick move to the RFI stage, while probably designed to put pressure on those large vendors and flush them out, also reflects the very pragmatic approach of TIP OpenRAN. Its focus is not on defining grand new architectures, but on getting hardware and software into the commercial space quickly, to start broadening the supply chain and allowing operators to harness commoditized compute hardware. This is in contrast to the ORAN Forum and Open vRAN, which are also developing specifications and network architecture.

Santiago Tenorio, Vodafone’s group head of networks strategy and architecture, said the RFIs reflect “strong industry collaboration via the TIP community,” and that it should serve to “help align the different open initiatives we have seen flourishing recently” by making it very clear to vendors what MNOs require.

What they require centers on decoupling the programmable RAN software from the hardware, and then splitting the control plane and user plane, adding flexibility and resource efficiency to the network. But instead of designing that virtualized, decomposed architecture from scratch, OpenRAN is drawing up agreed requirements, which could then be met, in theory, by a range of approaches. Nor, unlike ORAN Alliance, is it only focused on 5G – 2G, 3G and 4G integration or expansion are also covered.