A few months ago, I was travelling in another part of the world and after about a week being on the road, I suddenly noticed that I hadn’t made any calls whatsoever using the SIM card in the cellphone provided by the operator, and yet I was very much connected with my office and near ones. That entire fortnight I simply logged on to the Internet, and via the WiFi at public places, made calls, sent messages through Facebook messenger, WhatsApp and LinkedIn and even had a conference. Facebook messenger and WhatsApp both have a 1 billion user base each. Was this the beginning of the end of the telecom players and the emergence of Facebook as the world’s largest communication service provide?
The dots have been there for a while in the garb of connecting the unconnected. There were drones, which are bigger than commercial airplane flying high above the air traffic lanes, carrying satellites beaming Internet connections to users from the sky.
There was Terragraph, a terrestrial wireless system to bring high-speed internet connectivity to dense urban areas.
Then there was the Open Cellular Project (OCP) under the overarching umbrella of an ambitious Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP), to build telecom hardware, and there were huge data centres to handle traffic and analyse massive volumes of data being generated by all the users. Added to this, enormous investments were being made in laying thousands of kilometers of undersea cables across continents to ferry bandwidth to Internet hungry populations. Connect these dots, and Facebook clearly has all the pieces necessary to become the world’s largest telecommunication player. Facebook had to launch OCP and TIP because it had to take control over the technology it uses to support nearly 2 billion people uploading billions of photos, videos and updates every day.
Last year Facebook unveiled its open source Network-In-A-Box solution which is an access platform that can support a wide variety of wireless network standards, from 2G and LTE to Wi-Fi access points. Anyone can customise the platform to meet their connectivity needs and set up the network of their choosing, in both rural and urban areas. For instance, the system, due to its on-board computing and storage capacity, can be configured as network-in-a-box or purely as a cellular access point.
It had also announced a piece of network equipment known as an optical switch that it named Voyager. Optical networks are very-high-speed networks that transfer data using light pulses, rather than conventional copper wires. A “white box” is a generic piece of computer equipment that costs far less than the big brand names. Industry analysts dubbed this move as Facebook’s foray into the $500 billion telecom equipment market. Voyager has already been tested by Facebook and a large number of telecom companies.
Lots of big internet companies build their own tech, including Amazon and Google. But Facebook is unusual in that it openly shares all the designs, literally gives them all away for free, inviting anyone at any other company to come work on them, with contract manufacturers standing by to sell it all. It's a concept called open source hardware. In this way, Facebook gets lots of help in maintaining and advancing its infrastructure.
Very recently, under the TIP initiative, Facebook and telecom operator Orange has funded a startup, Amarisoft, that promises to turn PCs into mobile base stations. It is also funding another startup Athonet developing full software core networks. If successful, initiatives like these will disrupt the telecom industry with virtualisation technologies that do not need large investments in hardware. Amarisoft caims that its software covers the base station and network backbone and can operate on standard-PC type equipment. It is also one of the biggest priorities for mobile operators, according to Facebook, which has become a hugely disruptive force in the network market over the past year.
For the traditional telecom companies, they have little option but to team up with Facebook to get a slice of the huge technological evolutions taking place but in the process, they might be contributing to this social media behemoth becoming the world’s largest telecom player covering every aspect of the connectivity value chain.