First off, a disclaimer. It’s an important one (not like the warning that your McDonald’s coffee may be hot).

Last week, I spent some time at Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project (TIP) Summit and put together a blog post titled The Problem with Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can check it out here.

If you did read it, you probably wondered why it took me so long to get to the actual problems I see TIP facing. The bulk of the blog was focused on a handful of more positive messages: that initial concerns about industry support for TIP were quickly put to rest; that an initially vague focus quickly sharpened; that the core value proposition of connecting the unconnected is a real issue which aligns with our own work here at GSMA Intelligence.

Was it a love letter? Not quite. But was it clear to anyone reading beyond the headline that I really like TIP, what it hopes to accomplish and the progress it is making? And within that context, the point of highlighting the problem referenced in the headline was less about disparaging TIP than it was flagging a challenge that needs to be focused on to create success.

Of course, with that as a set-up, it only makes sense to talk about a few other problems: if we want to successfully navigate the challenges, then we need to recognise them. And to be completely honest, the one flagged last week might not be the most pressing.

Broad versus deep
When I highlighted that OpenRAN, mmWave and optical transport programmes were being complemented by new TIP work streams, the point was to recognise forward progress. But there’s a potential downside to this progress: lack of focus.

There is no doubt that vRAN fronthaul; efficient power technologies; artificial intelligence and machine learning; end-to-end network slicing; solution integration; and edge networking are all critically important telecoms technologies. And there is no doubt they can all benefit from the TIP treatment.

What is less certain is whether TIP can focus on all of these simultaneously and show progress with scaling attractive solutions which are more than one-off demos or trials. As the scope of any company or organisation expands, there is always the risk of spreading its energies too thin. TIP is not immune to this.

Network supplier expertise versus inertia
If TIP is successful, it will bring new technologies into operator networks. And with those technologies will come new vendors. Hence, we saw the best performing vendors of the OpenRAN RFI including a broad set of players extending beyond the traditional end-to-end network players: Mavenir; Parallel Wireless; Altiostar; Fairwaves; Radisys; BaiCells; NEC; ASOCS; Phluido; Comba; Dali Wireless; and VANU (in no particular order).

From an innovation and pricing perspective, competition is a good thing. But, for the most part, today’s wireless networks have been built by a handful of network vendors. In many cases this includes the deployment and management of network gear. And, over the years, this gear has come to include technologies which can be upgraded to support new generations of wireless access. It all adds up to an inertia that favours working with incumbent vendors: they are easier to work with because they know how the existing networks run and how to keep them running.

Commercial wrangling versus open commitment
The inertia I just mentioned stretches beyond network operations and deployment. It is a core dynamic in how networks are purchased. Setting up new commercial arrangements with small, relatively unproven vendors can be risky: the type of risk procurement departments loathe. And, while a new set of vendors might promise a focus on innovation and openness, larger vendors are often in a position to cut costs in order to avoid losing out on business. The question for an operator, then, is how much that focus on openness is really worth? Can an investment in the future benefits of openness and supplier diversity be justified, especially when service pricing and margins are under pressure?

None of this is news to the people who run TIP, including its vendor and operator members. They all get it. And that helps to explain a vision Telefonica outlined of a new telecom infrastructure value chain which includes hardware vendors, software vendors, node integrators, network integrators, support vendors, and service vendors. Breaking down the end-to-end value chain helps to break some of the inertia (operational or commercial) that accrues to end-to-end players.

It’s a smart move. It’s necessary. But it’s not sufficient. Maintaining progress will require a few other things.

TIP will need to make a few bets. Rather than spreading its energies around, it will need to focus on a few technologies (like it did with optical transport and OpenRAN) where it can show progress and gather momentum. These bets need to touch incremental network opportunities, places where it is easier for an operator to work with new vendors because incumbency isn’t an issue yet.

Do you need an example? Consider the new TIP focus on edge networking, including the Edge Application Developer Project Group. While edge promises latency improvements, transport efficiencies and new operator revenues beyond connectivity, it’s still a very nascent space. It’s still very much anyone’s game.

The most important requirement, however, stretches beyond TIP itself. If operators are committed to open networking innovations, it must be reflected in their purchasing. They can’t always be swayed by incumbent vendors offering the same solutions at a discount.

This means new procurement thinking. It requires faith in the long-term benefits of open network solutions, even if reliability or standards support doesn’t compare with traditional network vendors. It may require co-investment or involve working with incumbent vendors, driving them further and further towards openness.

I understand that this is a lot to ask but change won’t come from building, and buying, networks the same way they have for years. Trials and demos are a good start, but need to be followed by deeper actions and commitments.

– 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.