Industry Bodies/Groups

Facebook's TIP Is Desperate to Add Friends

Suspicious minds
Big chunks of the industry remain deeply suspicious of TIP, though. In the RAN equipment sector, years of consolidation mean three giant vendors -- Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia -- today control most of the market. And while Nokia is a long-standing member of TIP, there are glaring gaps in the E and H sections of the membership page. Those look even more conspicuous given both vendors' participation in ONF and Ericsson's decision to join the O-RAN Alliance earlier this year. Has the initial publicity about the TIP threat scared them off?

"It could be down to misconception or sensitivity to building in the open," says Zani, speculating on why they remain strangers. "They have a long history of having very capable engineers building in private and in R&D centers, and what we are doing is very different. I can say that Nokia's involvement has been very welcome, and their board membership has been very beneficial."

Even so, TIP's relationships with these giants pose a quandary. Without them on board, its ability to influence groups such as ETSI and the GSMA remains in doubt. Win them over, and it starts to look more like one of those organizations itself. Smaller companies and innovators may be understandably worried that giant vendors seize control of the vessel and steer it somewhere else.

At least one prominent startup has previously voiced concern about working with associations like TIP. "Generally speaking, and without naming any project, small companies cannot really participate in those programs," said Franck Spinelli, the CEO of a networking startup called Amarisoft, previously championed by French telco Orange, during a conversation with Light Reading in March last year. "You are too small to spend time on those things."

To prove the naysayers wrong, TIP must first persuade the investor community that its network startups hold promise. And there are some encouraging signs, according to Zani. A couple of startups participating in TIP's accelerator program have already managed to secure funding, he says. While their identities have not been confirmed to Light Reading (yet), Altiostar, a TIP member developing virtualized RAN technology, landed $114 million in a funding round earlier this year. That included support from ecommerce giant Rakuten, which is building a new mobile network in Japan on TIP principles. "Rakuten's success is important," says Zani. "The proof they will bring is really evidence of what we know is logically sound."

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Light Reading.

Making telecom sexy to venture capitalists (VCs) will not be easy. Hardware has in recent years become unfashionable, says James Crawshaw, a senior analyst with Heavy Reading. "VCs chased unicorns that promised more scalability based on SaaS [software-as-a-service] or two-sided platforms like Airbnb," he says. Nevertheless, there have been some acquisitions in the market for software-defined networks. And recent developments may hint at a change in the investment climate, including the withdrawal of an initial public offering by WeWork, a company providing shared workspace. "It perhaps indicates a shift in sentiment away from fluff to real engineering and scientific companies," says Crawshaw.

The big challenge for TIP will be getting that telecom super-tanker to budge. It must prove it is not just a community of businesses and organizations experimenting with new technologies and talking about change. Its working groups need to show products that can be deployed at scale by a broad set of players. If it can do that, says Zani, "the investor community will get excited again about telecom."

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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