Facebook VP on open RAN, Europe’s lead and tackling the digital divide

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Facebook has its hands on everything from open RAN to 60 GHz, all part of its efforts to tackle the digital divide so more people can use its services. (Pixabay)

Facebook traditionally uses Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona to provide an update on its efforts to connect the unconnected, and 2021 is no different. This week, however, it’s got something to share about Magma and Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Magma is an open-source software platform designed so that operators can easily deploy mobile networks in hard-to-reach areas at an affordable price point. Thanks to a collaboration integrating Magma with AWS’s edge computing services, now service providers can deploy 4G and 5G networks significantly faster by obtaining AWS infrastructure pre-installed with Magma, regardless of how small or large the deployment.

“With no licensing fees for the packet core software, Magma on AWS Marketplace will make fixed wireless and private network deployments quick and easy at a significantly lower cost of ownership,” wrote Dan Rabinovitsj, VP, Facebook Connectivity, in a blog post.

Within the last six months, Facebook announced that Magma would fall under the auspices of the Linux Foundation, and “we’ve got a very large and growing community that’s supporting that,” Rabinovitsj told Fierce. It demonstrates that pieces of the telecom stack can be put into open source, and that allows for “all kinds of innovation.”

OEMs can integrate it into their product offering, and system integrators can support the product for a number of service providers, mobile or fixed line. It can be used for converged networks like Wi-Fi and Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) or LTE only. A number of companies are building out 5G on top of the code base. Basically, it’s available for any use case and can be used to support a number of different types of topologies, according to Rabinovitsj.

Open RAN update

Facebook was early to lead in the open Radio Access Network (RAN) movement, and it’s made some serious headway. During what was supposed to be last year’s MWC-Barcelona, it announced Evenstar, a program to build RAN reference designs and software for 4G and 5G networks in the open RAN ecosystem.

RELATED: Facebook-led TIP launches Evenstar RRU program with DT, Vodafone and more

Since then, Evenstar has made its way into Vodafone’s network plans. In June, Vodafone said it expects to use new radio equipment defined under the Evenstar program as part of its open RAN deployment with Samsung, NEC, Dell and Wind River.

In January, four of Europe’s biggest operators – Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica and Vodafone Group – all announced their collective commitment to open RAN for the future.

In the big scheme of things, it’s early days but encouraging to see the progress, according to Rabinovitsj. “It’s the beginning, obviously. We have a long way to go to prove open RAN can scale and meet all of the requirements of the operator community, but we have a ton of really good news,” he said.

“I think Europe is leading right now in terms of commitment to turn all of this into real commercial production, but I think we’ll see more interest popping up in other regions as they kind of establish the beachhead.”  

Why is Europe so far ahead? The fact is, the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) really started with the big operators in Europe. “This is where we found the most interest in disaggregating the supply chain and opening up all the pieces.” For many of the European operators, “they’ve recognized pretty early on that the concentration of the supply chain was not working to their benefit. They’ve been focused on this for a while.”

That may seem surprising nowadays given the U.S. government’s interest in controlling vendors that participate in the telecom supply chain and its efforts to foster U.S. companies.

The FCC has an open proceeding examining the open RAN ecosystem and will showcase open RAN solutions during an event Tuesday, June 29. Is the U.S. government’s involvement good?

“I think it’s good for open RAN,” he said, noting that it’s probably borne out of multiple factors. One is the need for security in telecom networks, ensuring there’s more transparency. Remaining competitive is another reason. “I think it’s all positive for the initiative.”

Fragmentation concerns?

In the early days, serious concerns arose about the fragmentation occurring in open RAN efforts – too many groups pursuing disparate means to the same end game, with TIP being among the various groups contributing to it. Answering that in part last year, TIP and the O-RAN Alliance announced a liaison agreement to ensure their alignment in developing interoperable open RAN solutions.

Rabinovitsj said it’s important to remember that TIP is not a standardization body, and there wasn’t actually a conflict. It was more around naming conventions and “noise," he said. 

“I think the industry is very well set right now,” in terms of alliances and how to get things done, he said. The big challenge is getting all of the pieces to work together in commercial deployments – at scale and with the reliability everyone wants.

Connecting the unconnected

Facebook’s big impetus in getting involved in telecom infrastructure issues is to make it easier for more people to connect to the internet and therefore, use its online services. How’s that effort going overall?

Quite well, he said, noting that Facebook’s general philosophy is there’s no silver bullet to make everyone magically connected. Toward that end, it’s got a lot of different irons in the fire.

One of those is Terragraph, a gigabit wireless technology Facebook developed to deliver fiber-like speeds over the airwaves. It just announced that MikroTik, a Terragraph licensee, has commercially launched a 60 GHz product based on Terragraph.

Another thing Facebook continues to do is make investments in shared fiber networks. Fiber is the best type of investment you can make for connectivity, he said. It’s truly broadband, the return on investment is great and the asset lasts for a long time.

“It’s critical. If you want to get dense cellular networks, you need a lot more fiber,” he said, and it’s one of the many topics that Facebook Connectivity will be talking about during MWC 2021.