Telecom industry tries new tactics to connect the unconnected

Participants at the Telecom Infra Project Summit held at Santa Clara, United States. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

SANTA CLARA, United States — After hours of sessions on mobile and internet connectivity solutions, a single person in the audience clapped, slowly and steadily, in response to these words.

“We need better network coverage maps that are publicly available,” said John Garrity, senior connectivity advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development, at the Telecom Infra Project Summit on Wednesday.

Lauren Woodman, CEO of NetHope, a consortium of nonprofits that specializes in improving information technology connectivity in disaster response, later took to the stage for a discussion on emergency communications and explained why she had applauded at Garrity’s statement.

A lack of connectivity held back progress on the Ebola response, she said. She went on to provide the industry leaders and engineers gathered in the room with an update on the hurricane response in Puerto Rico. That disaster serves as yet another example that connectivity is as critical as food and water, she said, both because it helps responders be more effective, and provides communities in crisis with information they need.

Launched in 2016 and backed by Facebook, the Telecom Infra Project is an initiative that brings together mobile network operators, infrastructure providers, and technology companies. They collaborate on new technologies, consider new business approaches that improve upon the traditional network deployment approach, and draw new investments to the telecom industry, in what members describe as community-based research and development for connecting the unconnected and underconnected. One example of the kind of partnership that can result is a collaboration between Facebook and Telefonica to tackle the digital divide in Latin America.

The first TIP summit last year took place at the Facebook cafeteria in Menlo Park, California, and it was geared mostly toward engineers, but this year, more than 1,000 people registered for the event that filled a hall at the Santa Clara Convention Center. Here are some initial takeaways of how mobile network operators are embracing new business models and considering new kinds of partnerships in the process.

From experiments to deployments

Axel Clauberg, vice president of technology innovation at the German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom AG, asked those professionals representing a mobile network operator to raise their hands. Then, he asked the others in the room to consider buying them a drink. The telecom industry is truly challenged, he said, noting that only exponential innovation can help mobile network operators deal with exponential traffic growth, and explaining that TIP, where he is chair of the board, might be a part of that solution.

But technology is only 10 percent of what needs to change for operators to move toward a new model that will allow them to manage this transition, he said. He talked about the importance of connecting directly with the communities these groups are working to connect, mentioning a workshop he helped lead at the iHUB innovation hub in Nairobi, Kenya, in June, as well as TIP community labs springing up all over the world. The key, however, is to move from experimentation to deployment and take steps necessary to go from theoretical concepts to real world solutions, he said.

Jay Parikh, head of engineering and infrastructure at Facebook, echoed this point that the end goal is deployments, whether it is developing new technologies, or supporting the ecosystem that will allow them to scale.

“It is still very early. Those of you who have been in the telco industry for a long time know that it does not move lightning fast. But we’re going to try and change that,” Parikh said.

Over the past year, TIP has announced the launch of three new project groups: Millimeter Wave Networks, a backhaul project that aims to provide wireless networking solutions that work more quickly and easily than deploying fiber in highly populated cities; vRAN Fronthaul, which stands for virtualization of the radio access network and is an access project that aims to lower cost and adapt to backhaul starved markets, such as high-density locations indoors, or rural broadband connectivity; and the Edge Computing Working Group, which works on lab and field implementations of services and applications on the edge of the network. Speakers also announced several more project groups.

Parikh talked OpenCellular, an open-source wireless access platform that resulted from Facebook acquiring Endaga, a company that developed a network in a box. He announced two projects that would help the tech giant get these white boxes from their headquarters in Menlo, Park, California, where they’ve been testing, to remote locations around the world. OpenCellular Power, a system on display in the exhibition hall at a booth that stood out with a giant solar panel, will provide the power infrastructure needed for rural cellular deployments, and the TIP OpenCellular Community Grant Program will support a broader range of actors such as NGOs, early stage startups, and educational institutions to develop hardware and software for connectivity.

While there was a time when many did not take Facebook seriously as a telecom partner, but that is beginning to change. Facebook shared a video of a partnership with AirTel and Bandwidth Cloud Services group to put fiber in the ground in Uganda, in a partnership that aims to bring connectivity to 3 million people who are currently unconnected and underconnected. Still, mobile network operators do not want their business models disrupted, so change might come more slowly than Facebook would like, in order to get connectivity to the last mile and acquire more users around the world.

Via Twitter

Disrupt or be disrupted

Patrick Lopez, vice president of networks innovation at Telefonica, called on the industry to transform in the face of ever-growing demand. While it would seem that traffic growth would be good news, because growing traffic should be growing revenue, a large part of that traffic is video. And the problem is only growing worse, he said, because there is likely to be growing demand for video, and that demand is happening faster in poorly connected regions, meaning revenue per user will steadily decrease over time.

“Something’s gotta give,” he said. “The only way that you can manage that explosive growth with the same budget is either magic or you have to do something different.”

He described how the rural market captures the motivations of mobile network operators reaching the last mile and suggested solutions. If the problem is that demand is unclear, the approach is to improve rural intelligence; if the problem is that telco tech is not optimized for low density, the approach is to assemble innovative networks; if the problem is that operations are not a fit for rural needs, the approach is to test alternative operating models.

Companies that have embraced the opportunity of rural connectivity spoke about how they have made it work. One example was Navi Nadoo, representing MTN Group, a South Africa-based telecommunications company. He talked about how MTN is taking a new approach to target rural areas, for example by coming up with new infrastructure solutions that can roll out in a day, using green power such as solar and batteries, and finding new business models that allow companies to take risks together and share revenue between them.

“We have to get away from the age old paradigm of purchasing spectrum, allocating infrastructure to spectrum, and deploying networks which are capital intensive and capital heavy,” Rahul Bajpai, managing director for Technology Media & Telecom at Deloitte, said of connectivity efforts in developing countries. “It just takes too long and ROI on those investments especially in developing markets tends to be challenging.”

He appeared on a session called “Mapping for the Under & Unconnected” where both USAID and the World Bank were represented. “Sometimes people in the for-profit world are surprised when I say I’m here to help you make money,” said Troy Etulain, director of FHI 360's Digital Development Unit and project director of the Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research project, a USAID-funded program supporting interventions to support mobile money, internet access, and data collection.

Etulain, together with Garrity from USAID and Anat Lewin, senior ICT specialist at the World Bank, talked about partnerships between the TIP community and the global development community given the interest they have in providing connectivity to populations they have been focusing on for decades.

“We as nonprofits actually are not partners you want for your CSR department, but for your strategy department,” Etulain added.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.