Facebook Joins TM Forum in Connectivity Push

NICE, France -- TM Forum Live! 2015 -- Facebook has revealed it has joined the TM Forum in the hope of speeding up the rollout of Internet services to consumers who currently lack connectivity.

The social networking giant announced its membership of the telecom industry association during a keynote session today at the TM Forum 's annual conference in Nice, France, although the company is listed as one of several to have become members in late May on the TM Forum's website.

Bringing Facebook on board is something of a coup for the TM Forum, which has previously struggled to attract over-the-top players, and could help operators to work a lot more closely with the web company in future.

Explaining Facebook's rationale for joining the TM Forum, Markku Mäkeläinen, its director of global operator partnerships, told conference attendees that Facebook saw membership as a way of expanding the scope of its Internet.org initiative, through which it is providing free Internet services in a number of emerging markets with various operator partners. (See Facebook Launches Free Internet in Colombia.)

"We want to create industry-based practices to scale this globally," said Mäkeläinen. "We are looking forward to contributing to best practices, APIs and even infrastructure."

Mäkeläinen also indicated that Facebook would launch a Catalyst project with several partners to explore potential opportunities.

The TM Forum presides over a number of hands-on technology demos known as Catalysts and in February announced plans to expand the range of these and focus more heavily on NFV and Internet of Things technologies. (See TM Forum Catalysts Target NFV Management.)

Each Catalyst is sponsored by at least one operator and typically involves various hardware and software vendors in a real-world demo.

The news that Facebook has joined the TM Forum comes several months after Peter Sany took over as the organization's president and CEO and suggests that his strategy of broadening the TM Forum's remit is already enjoying success. (See TM Forum Gets New CEO.)

Sany, a long-term TM Forum board member, has outlined an ambition of accelerating the TM Forum's expansion beyond traditional telecom and IT operations and into emerging markets in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.

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Hinting at TM Forum priorities for Facebook, Mäkeläinen said the lack of decent infrastructure in emerging markets remained one of the chief barriers to Internet adoption in future.

The company reckons only 48.7% of the global population is able to access 3G networks, with so-called "2G+" networks now available to 91.7% of people.

Through a project codenamed Aquila, Facebook is hoping to provide connectivity to the final 9-10% using a fleet of unmanned drones, each of which will be the same size as a Boeing 767 but considerably lighter.

Mäkeläinen also expressed concern about the relevance and affordability of Internet services for many consumers in emerging markets.

Facebook believes there must be at least 100,000 online articles in any particular language for its speakers to view the Internet as a relevant tool.

Currently, some 52 languages representing 53% of the world's population fall into that category. To reach 80% of the population, a total of 92 languages would each need to have 100,000 online articles, according to Mäkeläinen.

Even then, awareness remains a huge stumbling block, with 69% of unconnected consumers in India and 50% of those in Ghana not even aware of the Internet's existence.

Affordability is also a major barrier that Facebook has been trying to overcome through Internet.org, which has now been launched in a range of emerging markets.

Having extended Internet.org into Pakistan last week, Facebook estimates that Internet.org services are now available to 1 billion people and that 9 million consumers are benefiting from the service.

Facebook insists that consumers will start to pay for mobile data services once they have been given a free taste of what is available, but several large operators have remained skeptical of the so-called "zero-rating" model.

During a keynote at this year's Mobile World Congress, Jon Fredrik Baksaas, the outgoing CEO of Norway's Telenor Group (Nasdaq: TELN), expressed concern that zero rating of Internet messaging services could dent sales of traditional telecom services. (See Zuckerberg Defends Internet.org Against Indian Critics.)

Facebook may hope that membership of the TM Forum will help it to persuade operators of the merits of greater collaboration.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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