In addressing the global digital divide, there’s no silver bullet

In the massive effort to connect the billions of people without reliable access to broadband, there is no singular solution that can be delivered by one company or government. Bridging the digital divide doesn’t just have to do with the transport, core, or radio access network, and there’s no template that can be applied to all un- or underserved locales. “There’s no silver bullet to solving the world’s connectivity challenges,” Facebook Vice President Dan Rabinovitsj told RCR Wireless News in a recent interview. 

That’s why Facebook Connectivity, the division of the social media giant focused on working with partners to develop scalable, cost-effective connectivity solutions, is taking a multi-faceted approach with announcements during Mobile World Congress highlighting investment in terrestrial fiber in Africa and South Asia; integration of its open source packet core software with Amazon Web Services’ edge compute offering; and ongoing work with partners on Open RAN reference designs to help accelerate adoption of disaggregated radio systems at scale. 

Rabinovitsj said Facebook Connectivity spends its time and money on “things that we believe will inflect the market. What we do is really focus on making partners successful. We want good outcomes and sustainable businesses as a result of that…That for us looks like success.” 

Specific to Open RAN, operator interest–both greenfield and brownfield–is quickly developing as evidenced by major European operators Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica, and Vodafone, all committing to deploy at scale in the next few years. 

“It’s a big deal,” Rabinovitsj said. “But there are still a lot of things that need to happen for this ecosystem to be successful.” With production proof points of Open RAN in the field and a pipeline of demand, “That means it can fan out now. Once a few of these get proven…other operators will take note.” 

Facebook’s major contribution has been the Eventstar RAN reference design software for open 4G and 5G radio access networks. Supply chain partners include Baicells, Marvell, MaxLinear, and Sterlite Technologies Limited. Vodafone has used Evenstar in the U.K. and Facebook Connectivity said there will be more commercial deployments in Europe and APAC in the back half of the year.

Another vector of change is Facebook’s open source Magma packet core software, which was brought under the auspices of Linux Foundation earlier this year. Rabinovitsj pointed to Magma-related activity on GitHub as indicative of the heightened level of interest around cost-effectively customizing crucial core software functions. “People can take it and make it their own,” he said. “If you want feature velocity on something you care about, you can go do that job and contribute it to open source. Open source should’ve been eating the telecom world a long time ago. We’ve been behind the curve.” 

He gave the example of an OEM shipping a CBRS solution with packet core pre-integration in place. “Now I can take Magma…and sell it under my brand. If I need special features or anything else, I can kind of do that custom work and contribute it back to the community. You have your own packet core which you did not have to pay for and develop which is a big deal.” 

On the transport front, Facebook and partners 2Africa and Liquid Intelligent Technologies, are working to bring connectivity to more of the Democratic Republic of Congo by deploying 2,200 kilometers of fiber, linking East and West Africa. “If there’s one place on earth with the fastest growing population and most acute need to leapfrog, it’s Africa,” Rabinovitsj said, adding that there are Open RAN conversations happening with operators on the continent but the fiber problem needs to be solved before the wireless problem.

Big picture, Rabinovitsj said, “When we work on infrastructure problems, we’re going to the core of capex and opex challenges. I think the more we invest here, the more good stuff happens.”

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