The Facebook-initiated Telecom Infra Project (TIP) is one of the most disruptive approaches to shaking up the cost structure and supply chain of the telecoms network. It has been challenged recently by the formation of ORAN, which combines XRAN – an open virtualized RAN effort originally set up by AT&T – with the Cloud-RAN Alliance. Some operators are taking sides, but both will help to reset expectations in terms of network costs – even if their actual platforms do not have commercial success.
While the ORAN Alliance is largely driven by big operators’ developments and requirements, TIP reveals some of its heritage in the webscale world with a stronger focus on very commoditized equipment which could support new service providers. For Facebook, this is about reducing the cost of getting mobile broadband access to the next billion and so opening new markets for its applications and adverts. However, the agenda has been taken over by leading operators, which want to reduce the cost of their 5G roll-outs in established markets too.
Typically, the large MNOs are contributing less development legwork to TIP than to ORAN, and are relying more heavily on encouraging new start-ups whose inventions may evolve into powerful counterweights to traditional vendor platforms. Orange, BT, Deutsche Telekom and SK Telecom have all set up TEACs (TIP ecosystem acceleration centers) – effectively local incubators for start-ups focused on the new networks. The chosen firms have the opportunity to be showcased to the wider TIP community, and to pitch for new funding. In each TEAC, venture capital firms, including the operator’s own investment arms, make €100m ($124m) in funding available, though there is not guarantee the chosen start-ups will receive the funds.
They can extend their innovations to TIP members either through open source processes or a new system of non-discriminatory paid-for licensing.
The latest start-ups to be funded under this program are joining DT’s TEAC in Berlin. They are Airrays, BISDN and an unnamed 60 GHz company formerly based at the German innovation hub, IMEC. All of these are developing technologies which aim to slash network costs and speed time to deployment. They were chosen for the TEAC after pitching to DT, Facebook and TIP at an event in Bonn last week.
The German operator said there are very few start-ups targeting network infrastructure because of “high barriers to entry” and the dominance of established vendors. This means that “the venture capital community has been very hesitant to make infrastructure-related investments,” said Arash Ashouriha, DT’s SVP of group technology innovation, in a statement. “We want to change this situation.”
This echoes the sentiments expressed by Orange, when it chose the first start-ups for its own TEAC last year. It selected Amarisoft, Athonet, Adipsys and Horizon Computing.
Airrays is developing smart antennas for 5G beamforming, conventionally regarded as a very expensive technology to enhance cell performance and spectral efficiency, and make it practical to use millimeter wave airwaves.
BISDN is developing systems to help telcos expand their virtualization deployments more economically, while the IMEC spin-out aims to commercialize an open and interoperable antenna system for 60 GHz spectrum (a particular TIP area of interest, since Facebook has already contributed its Terragraph design for backhaul in this licence-exempt mmWave band, and recently announced a joint 60 GHz project with Nokia).
Telenor is the latest operator to join TIP and it will focus in particular on Terragraph, the project’s 60 GHz wireless solution for access and backhaul, which it will trial in Malaysia, as well as on OpenCellular, which it will use in Pakistan initially.
The Norwegian operator’s CTO, Ruza Sabanovic, said the ultimate goal was to bring these technologies to its European markets. She said: “Driving the industry towards more openness is important for the ecosystem, as well as for Telenor Group, in order to pursue efficiency, innovation and attractive service experience.”
Deutsche Telekom subsidiary Magyar Telekom is also planning to run a Terragraph field trial in Budapest; while BT is going to use the technology in a field trial in rural Scotland.
Innovators like Amarisoft and Athonet could take business from Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei in future, the MNOs say, eagerly eyeing the opportunity to slash costs and open up their supply chains. Orange’s deputy CEO Gervais Pellissier told journalists earlier this year, while discussing TIP: “We need to keep freedom vis-à-vis suppliers and introduce new ones with 5G ideas. I’m not sure we will order 100% of 5G infrastructure needs from existing suppliers.”
Another Facebook design for TIP is OpenCellular LTE (OC-LTE), a low cost base station for rural areas, which is now going into first field trials. Several companies are working on OpenCellular products, but the first LTE trial equipment is based on Cavium’s Octeon Fusion processor with a commercial LTE stack contributed by Cavium to TIP. For the trial, the chip firm is working with a Nokia community-hosted network run by the UK’s BT/EE to support rural connectivity.
“Our goal is to bring together all of the technologies an operator requires to deploy and manage OC-LTE base stations in the field,” said Kashif Ali, Facebook co-chair of the OpenCellular project. “The integration with the Nokia solution will enable fast field deployments and ongoing system management capabilities.”