Facebook is entering the telecom arena with Telecom Infra Project

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Facebook has teamed up with Nokia, Intel, and several telcos to create an open source hardware and software platform for the telecommunication industry designed to make it easier and faster to build communications networks. The program is modeled after a similar effort the social network created five years ago for its data center.

If successful, the project will help operators build networks using a more modular approach, but it will also change the economics of telco equipment providers such as Ericsson and Cisco.

Facebook is proposing the Telco Infra Project, or TIP. The goal is to build open source hardware and software that will cover the three elements of a telecommunications network: The access, the backhaul and the core. Access is how a phone or a computer gets online in the first place and includes elements like the base stations and cell towers. The backhaul is how the signals from the devices get onto the Internet itself, and includes fiber access or even copper or microwave, depending on the situation. Once it gets to the Internet, those data packets have to get where they’re going and be counted appropriately on the cellular network for billing or application purposes (things like traditional text messages are still routed differently than WhatsApp messages). This happens in the core.

That’s telecom 101, and, because it’s a system that has been built up over a century, it’s a mish-mash of complicated gear and proprietary software holding it all together. However, the Internet, and particularly the evolution of services that go over the top of carrier networks using data connections, have threatened the carrier’s business models. It’s hard to charge people 20 cents per text, for example, when Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp are “free” with a data plan.

The proprietary, cumbersome, and expensive mess of gear is holding carriers back. It raises their costs, keeps them from innovating quickly and forces their executives to fear becoming a dumb pipe.

Enter the cloud model

The solution for carriers has been to turn to cloud providers for inspiration. The big question for the telecommunications carriers is whether they can turn fast enough—and whether their vendors will move with them. For example, this shift in underlying infrastructure is behind AT&T’s move to adopt software-defined infrastructure. That infrastructure will hopefully give Ma Bell more flexibility to deliver services without having to manually change out its gear, and also helps it simplify the overall network design. As part of AT&T’s plans to build this new type of network, it announced last week that its SDN efforts were 5.7% complete in 2015 and would be 30% complete by the end of 2016. It plans to roll out its next-generation wireless network using equipment from Ericsson and Intel.

 

By Stacey Higginbotham for Fortune.com

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