TIP offers start-ups a new way into the telco business

With internet traffic continuing to accelerate and innovation starting to stagnate, new ideas are needed to stimulate the telco industry. For the Telecom Infra Project team, start-ups could be the answer.

There have of course been numerous examples of start-ups disrupting an industry or creating an entirely new segment. Think of WhatsApp impact on the world of messaging or Netflix on content delivery, though navigating the waters of the telco industry can be a rough ride for start-ups. Few achieve the recognition their ideas deserve, possibly to the detriment of the industry.

“If the big players would buy them [start-ups] at a time when there is a product and they acquire them not to kill the product it would be okay,” said Axel Clauberg, VP of IP End to End & Infrastructure Cloud at Deutsche Telekom and Chairman of the Board at TIP. “We saw a couple of positive examples where it happened in the past, however many good ideas just don’t make it to that stage because when people start running a company and want to get funding by approaching a venture capitalist, suggesting their market is telco, the answer is no, sorry.”

“We were routinely being approached by start-ups who had really innovative ideas, but they were running out of money really quickly,” said Aaron Bernstein, Director, Connectivity Ecosystem Programs at Facebook and a TIP Board Member. “It was impossible for them to get the attention of VCs, and it really comes down to how do they go from zero to dollars as quickly as possible. That is what led to the creation of the TIP Ecosystem Accelerator Centre programme. How do we connect VCs who are interested in infrastructure with start-ups and operators who can create the idea of coaching to get them from zero to dollars much quicker.”

The TIP Ecosystem Acceleration Centre (TEAC) programme is an initiative which looks to creative the wrongs of telco life and bring new innovation into the fray. Several of the world’s largest Telecom Service Providers are hosting TEACs in the UK (BT), Paris (Orange), Seoul (SK Telecom) and Germany (DT), with the aim of creating breakthrough technologies that reimagine telecom infrastructure. TIP is an initiative which is all about doing something different to stimulate innovation, and accessing untapped ideas in the start-ups is certainly one way to go about.

Whether it is the procurement cycle, the cut-throat nature of acquisition or simply running out of funds, gaining traction in the telco world is an incredibly difficult task for start-ups. Perhaps this is the reason the industry moves at such a sluggish pace compared to the internet players of Silicon Valley who embrace the concept of start-ups, but for a healthier ecosystem, all ideas need to be taken into account.

For the moment, the TEACs are small scale, but every idea has to start somewhere. Start-ups could be the saving grace the telco world needs to stimulate innovation and recapture lost revenues, but the ecosystem has to change to embrace them.

A simple explanation of TIP – making connectivity cheaper

The Telecom Infra Project has gotten a huge amount of attention since its launch, mainly due to the Facebook brand, but why is it so important? It’s all about bringing connectivity to everyone, equally.

This might sound like PR propaganda, but it is true. Facebook wants to make sure connectivity is fair and equal for everyone in the world, ensuring the digital lifestyle extends beyond developed nations and into the ignored territories. Like the army of Mormons spreading the word of Joseph Smith, Facebook is attempting to spread its own form of enlightenment; connectivity.

Again, this might sound like a corporate giant trying to cover up nefarious objectives with a light and fluffy initiative but this is a genuine mission. It does have a tie back to the profit and loss column for Facebook, but what do you expect, Mark Zuckerberg is not the CEO of a charity.

In the simplest of terms, there are two objectives for TIP. Firstly, decouple hardware and software to bring down the price of connectivity infrastructure. This will, in theory, accelerate the rollout of said infrastructure into the regions were ROI has been hard to find. Secondly, open up black boxes in developed markets to improve the quality of connectivity. Both of these objectives are about improving the experience of the internet for all, providing an equal connectivity experience for the masses.

“We need to innovate at the speed of software upgrades not hardware replacement cycles,” said Telefonica’s David Del Val Latorre, one of the TIP Board members.

It does sound too good to be true, but you have to understand the Facebook business model. Unlike it neighbours in Silicon Valley, Facebook has not been the most successful when it comes to diversification. Almost every dollar flowing back to Zuckerberg’s piggy back is derived from the walled garden advertising business model. Facebook captures the audience on its platform, and then charges third-parties to access them. It is an incredibly successful business model, but it has its limitations; you can only serve so many adverts to one person. For Facebook’s rise to continue, new users need to be found.

Facebook’s Next Billion Users initiative is a perfect example of this. With developing markets approaching an advertising glass ceiling, new users need to be found to fuel the advertising machine. For this to happen, connectivity infrastructure needs to be rolled out into the regions where it isn’t. To tackle these tough environments and regions of low-ARPU, new connectivity solutions need to be developed to offer the telcos ROI. Hence TIP.

Of course Facebook is not on its own. Del Val Latorre is leading the TIP and Telefonica efforts to being OpenRAN to South America and connect an additional 100 million customers. Vodafone is doing the same in India and claims to be able to lower TCO by 30% for certain projects. There are now nine community labs around the world, including two in Brazil, and an additional seven field projects. Deutsche Telekom is running its own project in Hungary. Even Nokia has a member on the board, despite the TIP mission destroying part of its own business model. Ericsson isn’t a member though…

Of course, “this is not a Facebook thing, we are one member,” Jay Parikh, Head of Engineering and Infrastructure at Facebook, reminded the audience.

The TIP mission statement might sound like something out of a cheesy PR playbook, and this might be the case, but it is being genuine.

BT and Facebook give cheeky TIP for start-ups of the future

BT and Facebook have announced the three winning start-ups who will be admitted into the UK Telecom Infra Project Ecosystem Acceleration Centre (TEAC).

The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) has primarily been a playground for the big boys to date, all trying to solve the problem of ubiqtuous connectivity for their own self-serving reasons, but more recently there has been a search to bring start-ups into the community. The winners in the UK were KETS Quantum, Unmanned Life, and Zeetta Networks.

The TEAC initiative sounds a bit like a Dragon’s Den style audition in which start-ups pitch their credentials for admittance into the inner circle. We’re focusing on the UK here, but it should be worth noting these competitions are going on all over the world, and there are some substantial rewards. The start-ups will gain access to more than $170 million in venture capital funding and mentorship opportunities from UK investors, as well as the opportunity to rub shoulders with the other members which include some of the largest players in the tech game.

So who are the winners?

UnManned Life

UnManned Life started life in London in 2015, but has grown quickly to hold a presence in Brussels, Paris, San Francisco and Mumbai. The focus here is Autonomy-as-a-Service to manage unmanned ground vehicles, aerial vehicles and other robotics systems through a single interface.

Right now the solutions which the company offers are pretty basic (if you could call them basic), focusing on parcel sorting, smart factory solutions and surveillance inspections, but the team has sky high ambitions. Drones are an area which seem to be quite a focus here.

Recently at a BT conference, the team unveiled Drones-as-a-Service, which makes uses of MEC Servers to remove the latency challenge which might be associated with drones. Data packets the drones are sending are immediately re-routed to Drone Control Application Servers, which creates a closed loop where specific data for autonomous flight is sent directly to where it needs to be and all other data packets travel to the EPC. It removes the need for EPC approval means that all data reaches its desired destination sooner. Neat.

KETS Quantum

KETS Quantum is a bit more on the nerdy side of tech. There aren’t any drones to play around with here, these guys are security buffs.

KETS has developed a range of technologies for quantum-secured communications, including quantum key distribution (QKD) and quantum random number generation (QRNG). It focuses on the deep and dark world of data encryption, but more specifically the challenge of our current methods been rendered useless by the improvement of processing power and the introduction of quantum computing.

Most encryption techniques work by hiding the key to read the message within very complex mathematical problems. The difficulty of the problems usually mean it is almost impossible to crack the message, but advances in compute power have made some encryption software more vulnerable. Such a challenge will ensure companies like KETS will have a place in the ecosystem for a while.

Zeetta Networks

And just to take things up a level, Zeetta Networks make KETS and UnManned Life seem like high school jocks. Who doesn’t like a bit of Software Defined Networking.

Zeetta Networks started life in the University of Bristol focusing in the design, development and marketing of Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) solutions. The main product for the team, NetOS, focuses on creating a centralised view extended physical networks and enabling the construction of virtual network slices.

The team are currently involved in a number of different projects including the Bristol Is Open smart city initiative, at Ashton Gate Stadium open wifi venture and various other 5G orientated schemes.

DT and Facebook TIP the scales for mmWave

Deutsche Telekom and Facebook has jointly announced a new working group, Millimetre Wave (mmWave) Networks Project Group, to address the growing demand for bandwidth in dense, highly-populated cities.

Nestled in the wider Telecom Infra Project, the objective here is to make use of the much heralded millimetre wave spectrum, airwaves which have been billed as the saviour of 5G. The news will be welcomed by operators such as AT&T and Verizon, as well as urbanites who might struggle for connectivity in coming years, as data trends continue to spiral upwards.

“The mmWave group will focus on advancing networking solutions that use the 60 GHz frequency band, which many governments are allocating for 5G and other high-bandwidth applications,” said Andreas Gladisch of Deutsche Telekom, and Salil Sawhney of Facebook, (the project groups co-chairs) in a blog entry.

“This large slice of unlicensed spectrum can support the bandwidth required by virtual reality, augmented reality, 4K video streaming, smart city sensors and other emerging bandwidth-intensive applications.”

For those who want a bit of a recap. TIP is an open-source telco project, aimed at reducing the price point of operating mobile networks. It has been led from the beginning by Facebook, who might have thought it was about time to get back into the good books of the operators. There is only so long Facebook and other over-the-top content providers can use their infrastructures at no cost, without receiving passive aggressive digs.

On the business side of things, Facebook does need networks to get better as well. Video has been targeted as a massive growth area for the social media giant, but if the networks aren’t there to support the experience for the user, it is hardly going to be a successful venture. Finding cost effective solutions for the operators to roll out more advanced and cost effective infrastructure is very much in the interest of Zuckerberg and co.

TIP

The focus of this group will primarily be the design of nodes that combine radio transmitters and receivers, which make use of a mesh configuration, with traffic hopping from node to node to reach the reception point. Think of the signal bouncing around off nodes on utility poles, street lamps and the sides of buildings, before hitting a Wi-Fi access point, small cell or a building.

Using this method coverage could be provided to a pretty large area, but with a small number of nodes hooked up to the fibre infrastructure. In a perfect world, it is considerably more cost effective, much quicker to deploy and more flexible. Think about it this way, the less fibre which is going into the ground, the happier operators (and their investors) will be. Whether you’re talking about smart city applications, or mobile backhaul, there are certainly use cases for the group to target.

In terms of the work points for the group, this will be split into four areas. Firstly, a cost economics model, which will help operators determine whether the strategy is one which is orientated towards cost savings or revenue generation. We would assume this decision would have been made beforehand, but validation to build a business case for sign-off is always a useful tool to have.

Secondly, there will be a test and measurement module. You need to know whether the performance and capabilities of 60 GHz networking is actually worth it of course. There will also be network planning tools to help optimize the deployment of the nodes. And finally, best practise papers which range from obtaining spectrum covering permits and rules for attaching nodes to utility poles.