Facebook is working behind the scenes to transform the telecommunication industry. The company is not directly trying to enter the market to compete with other rivals. Instead, the company is working on collaborating with all the telecom hardware vendors, service providers, and other stakeholders to solve the major problem that has plagued the telecommunication industry since the beginning. The problem we are referring to is the price factor when it comes to the telecom industry. Telecom operators admit that it is really expensive to set up or expand the network to new areas because of the cost of the equipment used in setting up a base station.
According to a report by the Business Insider, the entire project started from an impromptu ‘It can't be so difficult to build our own system’ by one of the engineers sitting on the couches in the Facebook headquarters at Menlo Park, California. The idea started from merely an experiment about how can a group of Facebook engineers build a network with cheap off-the-shelf parts. The team started working on the project despite initial reservations by Hans-Juergen Schmidtke, the director of engineering at Facebook. The group wanted to build a ‘White-Box’ which refers to an assembled system. They successfully hacked together a white-box in one of the hackathons at Facebook, the team worked and made a working prototype in three months.
The breakthrough came when six months later, Facebook announced the launch of Voyager. This launch was surprising for the telecom industry as this meant that the social media giant is taking control of the hardware, in addition, the control of software platform. Immediately after the launch of Voyager, telecom companies across the globe like Telia, Orange, Equinix and MTN started testing Voyager on their networks. The interesting thing about this launch is that the company made the design open source for anyone on the internet to get started with the design just like the OpenCellular project. This introduced the concept of ‘Open Source hardware’ on the internet which is almost like Open Source Software but for hardware.
Open Source hardware
Open Source hardware has opened new possibilities for the company in addition to the benefits of designing the hardware. Anyone with expertise in network design or hardware manufacturing can take a look around at the hardware and help improve the design by contributing their input. Small scale companies can also take the design and roll out their hardware leveraging the core design made by Facebook. The part where the hardware is designed using existing parts available for retail means that these companies don’t have to worry about custom hardware that is expensive and hard to come by.
The entire concept of community that is actively contributing to improving the hardware means that more and more talented people can help Facebook. This means that the social media giant does not need to actively invest in research and development of specialized hardware because the hardware is built that way. It has manufacturers on contract standing by to sell the hardware based on improved designs.
BIY- Build it yourself
Facebook is no stranger to building something in-house and it has been designing and building its own IT hardware for years. The hardware has ranged from servers, storage systems, hard drives, to data centres. These systems have been cheaper, easier to maintain and efficient than the conventional things sold by companies like Cisco, EMC, HP, and Dell. The important thing to note here is that this is not an isolated case and major technology companies like Google and Amazon build their own hardware instead of relying on hardware from other companies.
Voyager was a turning point for Facebook which pushed at the formation of Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP). TIP is a consortium that Facebook launched at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2016 to take control of the technology that is use3d to support its users while uploading photos, videos, and status updates. TIP is a spiritual spin-off of Open Compute Project (OCP) which essentially serves the same role as TIP about taking charge of the telecommunication technology.
OCP has gathered a cult-like following and companies from across the board were forced to join the collective to collaborate by the competition created. The sheer level of competition that OCP created along with the cult was when the network engineers working for Apple quite their jobs when Apple refused to join the OCP to let its engineers collaborate with others.
However, the formation of TIP after the launch of Voyager made the telecommunication industry wary of Facebook’s moves. Despite the successful example of OCP, telecommunication industry had not collaborated together to find solutions to problems that were plaguing the industry. Facebook has maintained its stance that it has no plans to enter the industry as a competitor. It only wants to fix the problems that are stopping telecom industry from connecting more people to the internet by pushing the boundaries of the internet to underdeveloped countries.
The company has signed up a number of partners ranging from South Korea Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Nokia over last one year to join the TIP.
Hacking old problems
The interesting part about going about building cheaper hardware under TIP is to remove all the complex functions of the hardware and baking it all in the software. This technique is called as ‘Software-defined networking’ and the telecom service providers have been using it through Network Function Virtualisation. Both these techniques are not new but it is a new way to make computer networks.
The biggest problem that comes with such efforts is the fact that each company holds valuable intellectual property (IP) and it's not safe to share closely guarded ideas and secrets to engineers from other companies. To fix that problem, TIP has established a known way known as ‘Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory Terms’ (RAND) to share this information. This means that the companies will pay a tiny amount of fees to the company that holds the IP for its use as long as the fees are reasonable and it is available to everyone without any preference.
One important thing to note is that despite all these checks and balances to encourage innovation, some key issues remain. One of the main issues that TIP can’t resolve is the fact that the collective group is still new in comparison to OCP for instance.
The basic problem that plagues the idea is the fact that this model works in collaboration. There are companies that are a part of the group but have not done any active contribution in terms of ideas to the group. The group can’t function properly if the participants are not willing to participate and only choose to stand on the side observing everything else.
Another thing that can’t be fixed is the constant threat to telecommunication industry by Facebook if the company decides to enter the industry as a competition. But the important thing to note here is that despite the fear, the group will be beneficial to everyone who is involved in the collaboration and the effort to resolve problems that affect the entire industry.
Published Date: May 24, 2017 09:51 AM | Updated Date: May 24, 2017 09:51 AM