Facebook's whitebox-all-the-network-things TIP project flexes tentacles

Plus BT evaluates startups. Good luck, network kit giants


Comment Hard on the heels of Orange's Telecom Track, which will support network infrastructure startups in association with Facebook's Telecom Infra Project (TIP), BT is evaluating startups for a similar scheme.

The UK telco has been one of the operators supporting TIP, as a potential way to disrupt the network equipment space ahead of 5G, forcing major vendors to adjust to a radically different pricing model and supply chain structure – or be sidelined over time by a new ecosystem focused on open, low cost hardware.

Orange has already hinted, as it introduced the four choices for Telecom Track, that it could see them replacing the likes of Ericsson over time. Its first four companies are Amarisoft, which specializes in virtualized RAN technology; Athonet, which is developing software-based mobile core platforms; Adipsys, whose Wi-Fi hotspot management system is already in use at Orange; and Horizon Computing, which focuses on cost-efficiency innovations for telco data centres.

These companies, and others in future, will be channelled into TIP via the Facebook alliance – for instance, they will be able to meet other potential operator customers or supporters at the TIP Summit in California in November. They will be part of a dedicated programme for network infrastructure, called Telecom Track, which Orange has set up within its Orange Fab startup accelerator division and eligible for financial backing from the telco's investment fund, Orange Digital Ventures, and its VC partners (though the funding is not guaranteed).

BT weighs up TIP candidates

Now BT is evaluating its own likely candidates to transform the economics of building telecoms networks. The startups it selects will become part of its TIP Ecosystem Acceleration Centres (TEAC) and be eligible for funding from BT's TEAC fund, which is worth $165m. Earlier this year, BT announced two TEACs, one in London and the other in its BT Labs R&D center at Adastral Park. The TEACs are the main vehicle by which Facebook's initiative works through established operators.

The operators incubate and sometimes fund the startups, which become part of the global network which Facebook hopes TIP will become, mirroring its older Open Compute Project for cloud computer hardware. The aim is to have TEACs around the world, which will, as BT describes it, "create a global, sustainable ecosystem that attracts the brightest entrepreneurial minds and innovative investors to work together to produce breakthrough technologies and products in the telecom infrastructure space."

The idea is that the operators attract VCs to invest in their TEACs. It has been hard, in recent years, to get VC funds interested in network hardware, since the growth was seen to be on the software side of the industry, while the physical networks were dominated by a small group of large suppliers. However, with the confidence instilled by Facebook and operator backing – and the likely prospect of real trials and deployments by that operator - some of the barriers to investment are broken down. In BT's case, VCs have invested about $165m to date but BT and Facebook have not invested directly.

The VCs include Touchstone Innovations, Atlantic Bridge, Capital Enterprise, Downing Ventures, Entrepreneur First, Episode1, IP Group and OSI (Oxford Sciences Innovation). Dr Paul Gunning, principal researcher at BT Labs, said the choice of startups would be made in September after BT completes its current "roadshow". The telco is particularly looking for companies with developments that will be valuable to its efforts in 5G and in data centre interconnect (DCI), as well as contributing to the objectives of TIP – to establish a broad ecosystem of open source or openly licensed (RAND) technologies for telecoms networks, and encourage innovation in form factor, pricing and platform.

As LightReading pointed out, one of the TIP community products, Voyager, could be used in some DCI scenarios, though Gunning emphasized that this was not necessarily on the cards. Voyager is a white box DWDM (Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing) transponder and router for fiber providers. Telia has completed a trial of 100G and 200G using the Facebook-designed open source equipment plus technology from Coriant, used to demonstrate that 16QAM signalling works effectively over long distances. Voyager is the basis of the Open DWDM platform, itself part of the Open Packet Transport project, which is designed to drive down costs in the same way as Facebook's Wedge 100 white box switch did in the data centre. Voyager uses the same Broadcom Tomahawk switch ASIC chip as Wedge 100. Facebook has opened up the design to the TIP community via the Backhaul Open Optical Packet Transport project group and has been working with partners to test the solution.

As well as Telia, the product is being trialled by Orange, and by Equinix and MTN in South Africa. The first vendor to support the Open Packet Transport platform was ADVA Optical Networking, which plans to sell Voyager and provide network management, operations support and maintenance. ADVA CTO and COO Christoph Glingener called Voyager “a game changer that will open up networks to a whole new range of customers”.

Copyright © 2017, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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