This week, Facebook hosted its TIP Summit 2018 – the third time it has convened Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP) members and other interested parties since the project’s kick-off in 2016.

When launched back at MWC 2016, the TIP buzz was undeniable. Just as Facebook was disrupting the businesses of so many operators, it was now promising to disrupt the telecom networks business with a focus on open networking technologies.

It was a direction in which the telecom infrastructure space was already moving and an extra push from a name like Facebook was more than welcome, especially since it was all in the name of bringing network costs down and connecting the unconnected.

What’s not to like?

Well, for starters, it wasn’t quite clear why vendors would get with the programme. Nokia was a founding member, but a plan to open up “what is a traditionally closed system” would obviously threaten the business of anyone currently selling into that closed system.

Of course, when queried about their support for network innovation, vendors are fond of saying that they develop and build what their customers are willing to pay for. Would it be safe to assume, then, that operators which have often been slow to change the way they do business would be slow to ask their supplier to follow suit? Or that, if these operators did ask vendors to innovate in the name of openness, they might not actually buy the resulting solutions – especially if they were less reliable or more expensive in the near-term?

And yet, the momentum behind TIP has continued to build. Operators see an opportunity to drive network innovation. Vendors (especially non-incumbents) see an opportunity to break into the network business formerly closed off to them. Facebook sees an opportunity to build a tighter relationship with the service providers it relies on for connectivity, while driving the altruistic aim of increasing emerging market Internet usage.

Growing support
A handful of members at launch became “more than 300” by the first TIP Summit and “over 500 member organisations” today. An early, somewhat vague, focus on “access, backhaul, core and management” morphed into concrete work around OpenRAN, mmWave and open optical technologies. These, in turn, were joined by additional work streams around: vRAN fronthaul, power and connectivity, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, end-to-end network slicing, and solution integration.

This week, we saw the announcement of further work around system disaggregation (optical and cell site gateway), the results of vRAN fronthaul trials, OpenCellular trials, and the OpenRAN RFI launched in June by Vodafone and Telefonica. By all accounts, the results have been impressive.

Job done, right? Maybe not.

The problem comes back to the core TIP value proposition of connecting the unconnected. It was the proclaimed focus of the first day of the 2018 TIP Summit. It was called out as the whole point of TIP in a fireside chat between Facebook’s Jay Parikh (VP of Engineering) and Ina Fried of Axios. And, Facebook’s motives aside, it’s a real issue. Just take a look at our Mobile Connectivity Index (overview below).

In some regions (like Sub-Saharan Africa), nearly 40 per cent of the population isn’t covered by a mobile network. And even where network coverage tops 80 per cent across other regions, the percentage of people who are covered but not connected – thanks to cost, content availability or consumer readiness – is often more than 40 per cent.

There’s no doubt connectivity matters. Whether or not Facebook and TIP can change the connectivity landscape is another matter.

Sure, bringing down network infrastructure costs could make it easier to roll out networks to the uncovered. But conflating network infrastructure with networks is a mistake. Networks require siting infrastructure. They require spectrum. They require people to keep them running. TIP’s ability to impact those things is limited.

If there’s any doubt about the magnitude of the costs that go beyond network infrastructure, consider what operators spend on opex vs capex. We’re not talking an even split. Or even two-to-one. In many cases, it’s closer to five-to-one, or even more skewed towards opex.

TIP may be able to drive network infrastructure scale and cost efficiencies, but that’s only one part of the connectivity equation.

Ultimately, this is why it’s encouraging to see TIP messaging around rural connectivity accompanied by progress on innovations like network slicing, edge networking, 5G NR and other technologies that can be deployed everywhere. Not because rural connectivity isn’t important, but because the ability of TIP innovation to drive success may always be limited by dynamics beyond technology.

– Peter Jarich, Head of GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.