Metaverse-ready networks: Is there a TIPing point for operators?

The role of operators and network disaggregation in enabling the metaverse vision takes center stage at FYUZ

MADRID–The three-day FYUZ event was, in some ways, three distinct but complementary things—on day one the main stage was billed as the Open RAN Summit and highlighting O-RAN Alliance work, day two saw the big room go to the TIP Summit and focus on the Telecom Infra Project, and day three, the Metaverse Connectivity Summit got main-stage billing. There’s clear overlap here in that Meta (at the time Facebook) catalyzed the formation of the Telecom Infra Project which, among other connectivity infrastructure-related areas, drives Open RAN solution development, taking inputs from the spec work done by the O-RAN Alliance. Maybe not so clear is the link between specifying and deploying disaggregated networks that are built with support for the metaverse, Meta’s North Star, front and center. 

RCR Wireless News caught up with Eran Tal, director of connectivity ecosystems at Meta and member of the TIP board, to get a handle on what sits in the middle of this three-circle Venn diagram. 

From three circles to two hats, we started by getting an understanding from Tal of his two distinct roles and how they relate to each other. “There’s clearly been a lot of synergy between the two,” he said. “The ecosystems team in Meta Connectivity has been specifically focused on making sure TIP is successful. We have over the years, whether it’s Evenstar, Terragraph, etc. … had our own developments that we wanted to contribute. Those happened with the Meta hat on.” 

He looked back at a previous age of “incubation” made up of the practical work needed to stand up TIP. “We’re no longer in that phase. The way I think about my role now is as a representative board member. … The way I think about my role in Meta is how do I build strong relationships between Meta and the companies that participate in the space.” 

With regard to the increasingly collaborative work conducted between O-RAN Alliance and TIP, Tal highlighted the need for an ecosystem approach. “The re-integration of disaggregated technology, especially in the telco world, is not an easy thing. We’re just going to have to work very hard on it. In order to create a bigger cohort, a larger following, you have to be patient, you have to find the right way to get folks involved. … There’s no shortcut here and there’s no cheating the system. I think, at the end of the day, when you have disaggregated your technology, the opportunities to then optimize your opex and push innovation and new solutions should be so much greater.” 

Before looking ahead at Meta’s vision for metaverse-ready networks in support of scaled delivery of the metaverse, it’s worth looking back at what was then Facebook Connectivity, the social media giant’s connectivity business unit, and TIP touch point, established to work with relevant players to change network economics. The premise is fairly straightforward: There are billions of people in the world without access to the internet. To get them online, networks need to be built using a new cost model. Once those networks are built and those people are online, they could come onto Facebook platforms and create monetizable data. 

Way back in March 2020, Dan Rabinovitsj—then vice president of Facebook Connectivity and now vice president of Meta—told RCR Wireless News: “Almost everything we do in Facebook Connectivity is focused on getting more people online to a faster internet. There is a strategic business rationale to the company. It’s kind of like the top of the funnel for all the Facebook properties. The other big piece of that is onto a faster internet. We see globally that actually internet speeds are going to decline” due to limited infrastructure capex and capacity limitations caused by network saturation.

Now back to Tal on the sidelines of the FYUZ. With the focus on metaverse-ready networks–something that’s materially different than building out connectivity infrastructure in service of things like web-browsing and banking services–how should we think about this ramp in complexity?

“It’s reflective of the change that Meta as a company is going through and where it’s putting its focus. It’s an alignment of action in a specific area,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve lost any of the passion or interest, if you will, in the original mission of connectivity. … We are orienting more focus towards these metaverse-ready networks. It does bring about potential different dynamics about which parts of the technology are you trying to disrupt and how,” specifically a move from cost optimization to building high-powered platforms for innovation. “We’ve expanded our aperture,” he adds.

In his position as an ecosystem builder, we asked Tal if this expanded aperture represents a material bigger ask from players in the connectivity world. “Yes,” he said, but “it’s more of a give as well. … If we’re talking to an operator about deploying some general network in an area where there wasn’t coverage before because of cost/economics, we will lean in.” But, “As a company, we’re a bit removed from that. We’ve got ideas on things we can do on our end and things we can do with network operator to optimize delivery…[and] be able to communicate first hand what are the benefits and challenges…We can actually play with a use case.” 

In various conversations, panel discussions and presentations at the event, there was broad acceptance that metaverse use cases were still in a “nascent”–a word used quite a bit–stage. But we can all readily piece together how the combination of a performant network, spatial computing, accessible devices and relevant content can do things like facilitate training for, say, healthcare, or create new classroom instruction methodologies. The example we pitched to Tal was biology students learning about the workings of a cell by being able to use a device to go down to the cellular level and “see” those workings. But how does the value chain come together in a way that operators, tasked with pouring capital into these networks, can monetize those investments? 

“I think that’s a good question,” he said, and added, quite candidly, “I don’t think we necessarily have all the answers. I definitely think that as we deliver more premium experiences, there’s an opportunity for more monetization. It’s hard for me to predict the specifics of how exactly it comes about. I think the first thing that can be done to help is kind of fill in the space that 5G has created to create some more of that opportunity.” 

One over-simplified model that’s certainly new, but not that new, would be something like: Meta continues to evolve its devices, operators get their networks metaverse-ready, content creators develop materials relevant to whichever consumer segment or enterprise sector, and it’s bundled all together. An operator could, again simplistically, sell a user a bundle of device, content and appropriate connectivity. 

Tal, and others, tied this to network intelligence being able to understand the quality of service and quality of experience requirements of different metaverse-based experiences. This is conceptually linked to RAN Intelligent Controller technology wherein an open, cloud-based platform ingests network telemetry and runs various xApps and rApps to essentially tune different radio functions for ongoing optimizations that benefit both operator and user. “Maybe if you want a super-premium experience that requires a lot of bandwidth, maybe that is a monetization opportunity,” Tal suggested. 

Elsewhere at FYUZ, in a well-attended panel discussion, Meta’s Manuel Gabriele, connectivity technologies and ecosystems manager, kicked off the session by asking the room who knows what the metaverse is? One, then two, then a third person raised their hands. He acknowledged the concept was nascent (that word again), and the use cases would take time to come together. The “metaverse will evolve … supported by a strong connectivity foundation,” he said. 

Durga Stapathy, director of advanced technologies and innovation with T-Mobile US, appearing in that session via pre-recorded video, said, “For us it means bringing together the physical and digital worlds,” digitizing people, places and processes. “The potential, after you have done this, is limitless.” He suggested that, beyond providing the connectivity, operators could also serve as the facilitator of digital identities, digital wallets and digital token-based payments. “Then you need content; content that’s either curated to your work … or your personal hobbies.” 

Reflecting about the FYUZ programming in a LinkedIn post, Omdia’s Service Provider Transformation Practice Leader James Crawshaw described a “slightly dystopian feeling” around TIP, and even Open RAN, as only existing “to build the pipes to deliver the metaverse content for Meta. There is a distinct lack of open debate about the challenges of delivering disaggregated networks. There is just an acceptance that this will happen and naysayers are not welcome.” 

Crawshaw’s post started a discussion that’s well worth reading. We’ll attempt to use restraint (but not that much) in excerpting hightlights. From Rakuten Symphony CMO Geoff Hollingworth: “I hope we are not building this for the metaverse because we don’t know what that is, and Meta might be showing us what is definitely is not … My working theory on what we are building is ‘very present’ connected computing.”

Digital Transformation Officer for Telecom at Google Kevin Shatzkamer thought Crawshaw was “spot on. … ’Open’ and ‘disaggregated’ shift the burden of delivering complete ‘solutions’ (you know, integrating and re-aggregating) back on either the operator or systems integrator. It’s a shift of spend from product to services.” 

Consultant Paul Hjul, managing director at Hjul Consulting, weighed in: “From the perspective of Meta etc. … the role of network operators is to build dumb pipes. Consequently any project Meta is invested in aligns with that objective. My view though is that whether network operators want to or not they have to get better at building dumb pipes which things like TIP allow them to do.” 

VMware Senior Director, Telco Global Accounts, APAC Adam Nardella looked back at at a simpler time, before TIP, before Meta, and before the metaverse, when then-Facebook started and the Free Basics app to help connect underserved global markets and give them an on-ramp to the web. These efforts were “focused on improving internet access around the world,” Nardella wrote. “This included using Open Compute (a [Facebook]-led open source project) to build low cost data centres, while also using data compression technology…to stuff more streams down the pipe by increasing transmission efficiency.” 

Times have changed. Based on the dedicated metaverse stream at FYUZ standing alongside TIP-led and O-RAN Alliance-led content; based on the shift from building networks to building metaverse-ready networks; based on the Facebook transformation into Meta; based on Meta this week reporting a 4% decrease in Q3 revenue, a 19% increase to $22.1 billion in year-over-year expenses, and a 46% year-over-year decrease in operating income. The company’s stock is trading around 2016 (the same year TIP was founded) levels. Things have indeed changed. Or have they?

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