Facebook sniffs at slow telcos, launches own Telecom Infrastructure Project

EE is onside and even admits it's 'too slow'

MWC16 Facebook is adding more telco friends as the social media giant launches another initiative, this time called the Telecom Infra Project. It is a collaborative effort to come up with new ways to design and build telecom network infrastructure.

Founding members of the infrastructure club include Deutsche Telekom, EE, Globe Telecom, Intel, Nokia and SK Telecom.

According to a Facebook blog post announcing the project, traditional telecom networks can’t scale fast enough to keep up with our data-intensive usage, and it thinks the best way to speed up the pace of innovation is to work together in an open community.

“Driving a faster pace of innovation in telecom infrastructure is necessary to meet these new technology challenges and to unlock new opportunities for everyone in the ecosystem,” wrote Jay Parikh, head of engineering and infrastructure at Facebook.

Facebook, Intel and Nokia will contribute some initial reference designs to get things started, while the founding operator members will help to “define and deploy the technology as it fits their needs,” according to the blog. The members will contribute designs in three main areas: access, backhaul, and core and management. The work could help accelerate technology development efforts for 5G.

EE, the UK’s largest mobile operator and now part of BT, is among the first companies to join Facebook’s initiative in an effort to find new ways to bring 4G services to remote parts of the country.

The operator hopes the open source community approach will help to create mobile network technology that is easier and cheaper to deploy than traditional infrastructure so that the costs of rolling out these networks are more aligned with the realities of delivering 4G services to remote areas.

Speaking to The Register, EE’s director of radio access network (RAN) and programmes Mansoor Hanif said that the new open source infrastructure project builds on Facebook’s OCP Telco Project, which launched earlier this year, and “makes it real.”

Traditional telecom standards development is “just too slow,” he said. The pace of innovation is much quicker among so-called over-the-top (OTT) players, and EE and others want to speed up creative technology development in mobile networks. So this new open source project brings together Internet companies, equipment manufacturers, chipset players, software developers and operators to cooperate in an open environment, while also working closely with existing standards bodies, to solve today’s infrastructure problems worldwide, according to Hanif.

In the UK, EE thinks this open source approach to radio networks could result in lower cost equipment for rural coverage and in natural disaster situations, like major flooding.

“Our job is to get 100 per cent indoor and outdoor coverage all over the UK,” said Hanif. “We’re keen to spur innovation and investment. So we’re working a lot with open networks and open sourced software stacks in the radio network. We’re encouraging some of the small players in the ecosystem to really shake things up now.”

EE is working with the Scottish government to bring 4G services to the Scottish islands. The idea is to use open-sourced radio small cells in a type of mesh network deployed on lighthouses along the coast. There are 54 lighthouses and 43 ferries that serve the Scottish islands, according to Hanif. By using existing infrastructure like the lighthouses or ferries to locate tiny base stations, EE can bring 4G services to the islands where it would be cost prohibitive to deploys large, traditional 4G base stations (and not to mention unsightly).

The project is similar to the work EE has done with partner Parallel Wireless. But EE is looking for an even smaller, lower cost version of the base station technology that potentially can even be maintained by local communities.

EE is also working on new radio concepts to serve in disaster situations, such as the recent flooding in parts of the UK. The operator is looking to outfit mobile masts on balloons, drones and even amphibious rapid response vehicles (think of vessels like those run by Duck Tours on the Thames). The plans are part of EE’s Signalling the Future strategy (pdf), backed by £1.5bn of investment, to improve coverage and network reliability in the country.

For Hanif, the debate about how to fight the so-called OTT players is “really old.” It’s “really exciting to have a collaboration of very big OTT players with network operators and key equipment vendors with chipset vendors and the open source software development community,” he said.

In future, Hanif hopes the community will grow, especially to include students and researchers in the UK. “We’re hoping to get development kits out at a really low cost so that universities in the UK can have projects on what can be done with a programmable base station.”

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