The TIP held its first major summit event a few weeks ago. The initial thrust is about using innovation including opensource cellular technology to bring Internet connectivity to rural and remote places throughout the world. The longer term scope could be bigger. Major multi-national businesses are fully engaged. Many of the principles of Small Cell technology and operation have been adopted. This paints a very different picture of the next steps for cellular investment than purely super high speed 5G.
What is the Telecom Infrastructure Project?
TIP is an engineering focussed initiative driven by operators, infrastructure providers, system integrators and other technology companies that aim to “re-imagine” the tradition approach to building and deploying telecom network infrastructure. They held a major summit meeting on 1st November which was over subcribed.
It’s already gained substantial momentum, with over 70 members including big names such as Facebook, T-Mobile, Vodafone, SK-Telecom, Tata, Nokia and Intel. It’s also open to smaller companies too – the membership list include several familiar names from the small cell ecosystem. Most members tend to have a more global focus and so far don’t include some of the bigger national-oriented companies such as AT&T, Verizon or China Mobile.
Alex Jinsung, TIP Chairman and CTO of founding member SK-Telecom, explained that it’s now time to disrupt the cellular infrastructure market and allow innovation and new entrants to participate. Today we have very silo-ed, rigid, manual approach. Unprecedented traffic demand needs to be satisfied both in busy urban areas and for those underserved in rural and remote areas.
The TIP project wants to reinvent the design and deployment of infrastructure, and has already setup a lab with working systems. It’s not specific to cellular but also includes high speed wireline and optical internet.
I've picked out two specific talks from the event, one relates to small cell style basestations and the other at unsual deployment scenarios.
Facebook plans to release entire cellular solution as opensource
Facebook want everyone to have Internet service – it’s not entirely altruistic because they can expand their customer base and sell their services. Here’s a world map showing how the world is lit up by 2G, 3G and 4G today. The date wasn’t given and I think this radically understates the situation in China.
Kashif Ali, speaking at TIP Summit 2016, explained how their basestation design would be made fully open source. This is a separate initiative called OpenCellular for which everything including the raw CAD files for the hardware, the source code for the entire software stack, test scripts and deployment guides.
The small cell design comprises three modules:
- A General purpose Baseband Computing board (GBC), which could operate standalone as a “Network in a Box” and/or host other applications in addition to the main processing functions
- Radio, which has several options including both SDR (Software Definable Radio) or SoC (System on a Chip). Both proprietary and opensource stacks will be available.
- RF Front End, involving the power amplifier and combiner etc.
NuRAN, a small Canadian company with about 45 employees, made a major scoop by announcing in November that it will be the first partner with Facebook to supply and support OpenCellular hardware commercially available early in 2017. The company had been supplying mostly 2G basestation products for use with opensource GSM software in rural communities and has around 45 employees.
UK operator raises the pace of innovation
Mansoor Hanif, representing the combined BT EE operator from the UK, outlined a series of initiatives to expand cellular footprint. Rural coverage is rarely commercially viable and so community involvement is important, such as where a local “champion” might be trained to reboot a local cellsite or inspect it for corrosion. He thought this was an ideal first step to test out innovative TIP concepts, introducing new vendors and deployment approaches.
He hinted that there is a growing appetite for building owners to contribute and facilitate in-building small cells, forecasting the need for at least 50,000 UK buildings to be equipped within the next three years.
While 4G can deliver very high speeds, he thought the primary use case today related to trains – where this could serve the combined needs for all passengers. Special projects are underway to equip many train tunnels including the London Underground.
Small cell mesh technology, which re-uses the cellular inband spectrum for backhaul, has potential in locations with low traffic levels but wide areas. Long rural roadways are a prime example.
Satellite backhaul, often discussed for rural small cell applications, is being taken more seriously now. Previous concerns that satellite couldn’t support LTE or VoLTE have been overcome, after tests proved successful operation. EE plan to deploy some thousands of satellite backhaul links with their partner Avanti.
Balloons and drones are also under trial and refinement. These are useful for temporary service, such as during outages from floods or power, because they can be deployed relatively rapidly – drones much more quickly than balloons. However, balloons are more resilient to bad weather apart from lightening strikes. Discussions are ongoing with the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) and NATS (Air traffic control) to determine how these would be regulated.
While there is much press hype around the super fast speeds of 5G, I feel it doesn’t address the more immediate needs of those underserved today – whether living in remote rural areas or working inside office buildings and busy public areas. TIP is more than just an open source software project but also seeks to re-invent the operational side of how we deploy, manage and maintain networks. This should bring cost benefits throughout, and make it possible to come close to ubiquitous, resilient and commercial viable service worldwide.
Definitely one to watch.