After two decades of Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint ads, you know how the big telcos deliver cellular service to your smartphone. Each builds its own nationwide wireless network, boasting that its particular web of data centers, fiber lines, and antennas is faster and more reliable (or at least cheaper) than the others. It’s a battle of the color-coded maps: Verizon’s blood-red cell towers challenging the blue of AT&T and the yellow of Sprint, telcos competing through vast empires of hardware.
But this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona saw the further rise of a movement that seeks to upend this business model, encouraging telcos to build common infrastructure they all can share. Why build three networks when you can build one? Wouldn’t that be better for everyone, telcos and consumers alike? Wouldn’t you get a 5G signal sooner—and for less money?
The movement spans many companies and projects. But in Barcelona, the chief mover is not a telco. Rather, it’s a company that has made a habit of putting its name, money, and power behind efforts to democratize the development of new technology: Facebook. On Monday, the American internet giant announced collaborations with two different telcos in Uganda to lay about 480 miles of fiber in the northwest region of the African nation. The three companies plan to share this fiber with any other interested telco, distributing the internet to countless wireless towers and then on to an estimated 3 million people in the process.
Facebook hopes the project can serve as a template for telcos looking to more quickly and efficiently deploy fiber to places that don’t already have it. “Where operators can come together and leverage common infrastructure, there is more flexibility, lower cost, and a better time to market,” says Faceboook vice president of engineering Jay Parikh. And ultimately, that means more people will use Facebook.
Meanwhile, SK Telecom, the largest telco in South Korea, announced that it will work with several other companies to design hardware and software that will allow telcos to more readily share antennas and airwaves. Others have explored similar designs for “Unbundled RAN architecture, but SK’s project still represents a new step forward, again thanks to Facebook. The company is developing the technology under the aegis of the Telecom Infrastructure Project, or TIP, Facebook’s effort to freely distribute hardware designs, software, and ideas to anyone in the industry. By encouraging the sharing RAN architecture with other telcos to allow everyone to use the same networks, Facebook hopes to catalyze a broader market that will mean more internet for more people everywhere.
Earth and Sky
This kind of extreme sharing represents just the latest step a much wider change across the world of computing. The change began with the rise of open source software, as so many companies, particularly internet giants like Google and Facebook, freely share their source code. By sharing valuable software, these companies are hoping to get what amounts to free help from outsiders to improve and expand the software that underpins their businesses.
The same ethos has also moved into the development of hardware. In 2011, Facebook started open sourcing the designs for the computer servers, networking equipment, and data centers that power its vast online empire. At the same time, it encouraged others to do the same. Through its Open Compute Project, an independent non-profit, Facebook seeks to streamline the development of hardware needed to run the internet and drive down the cost in the process. The project has succeeded in many ways—so much so that, through TIP, Facebook has decided to push the same idea into the telco market.
Though TIP is only a year old, Facebook says it now spans more than 450 companies, including telcos like SK, hardware makers like Nokia, and internet giants like Microsoft. And the Unbundled RAN architecture is just one of its many efforts to build and share new kinds of wireless antennas and other hardware to help drive modern communications networks—and, in the long run, get more people onto Facebook.
Facebook’s work in Uganda stands as a somewhat different play. The company will provide funding for the new fiber network, as well as expert guidance. But the project also serves as a kind of test bed—Facebook will share the results of the experiment with TIP’s growing community of telcos around the world with the intention of showing others when, where, and how this model might be useful. “We want to learn what the business dynamics are, what the planning and technical hurdles may be—and then contribute those learnings back to TIP,” Parikh says. “If it works, other operators will be motivated to come together for similar types of arrangements.”
Still, the project faces forces pushing against this kind of sharing. Local governments that derive revenue from fiber licenses and related taxes may discourage telcos from sharing infrastructure in the way Facebook hopes they will. And even when shared, fiber costs a lot. Some argue it makes more sense to expand the internet through satellites, drones, and high-altitude balloons—technology already under development inside Facebook and Google. “Satellites will be much faster, bringing service to an entire region in one go,” says Tom Makau, an independent analyst based in Nairobi who closely follows the African telecom market. “You don’t need as much infrastructure on the ground.”
In the US and Europe, the telcos themselves may oppose this new model just because they’ve built their businesses around proprietary infrastructure. If everyone shares infrastructure, they must find other ways of separating themselves from the competition. They’ll have to focus on software rather than hardware. “Every market is going to be a little different,” Parikh says.
The larger point is that Facebook—and so many others—are pushing to accelerate the growth of the internet not just in one way but many. The drones and the balloons get so much of the press. But so many other technologies can also bring the internet to the developing world, from new fiber to wide-area antennas, and urban wireless systems. All can play a role. And the the ideas behind all these technologies now flow freely through the community Facebook founded.
The bigger force here is open source, a practice more powerful than any one piece of hardware. After changing the software market and the data center, open source is coming for your telco. What was once a competition becomes a collaboration—and the internet will expand much more quickly than before.