An Illustration of Forces Within the Broadband Ecosystem —
Last September, AT&T recently proposed the creation of a new open source working group dedicated to the specification for open Fiber Distribution Huts (FDH) or Primary Flexibility Points (PFP). AT&T has been a global leader in open source so it’s not surprising that they were the company to open source a hut. The reason cited was that current products are “proprietary designs that require sourcing all components from a single supplier”. Sound like “vendor lock-in”? At first glance an open source fiber hut may seem trivial. It’s not. Instead, it’s a snap shot of the changing dynamics of the broadband ecosystem.
Open source is a term often used and not always in the same way. It started with the LINUX operating system, an open source version of UNIX. Simplifying a complex subject, the general idea is for a common code base where developers all over the world can fix bugs and add new features and functions. To eliminate version control chaos and rogue code, LINUX is governed by the LINUX Foundation. The LINUX Foundation also governs dozens of additional open source projects; many in the networking and telecommunication area. They claim to be the “largest shared technology investment in history” and likely are.
Open source is not “Free Software” or a “Free Hut”. One way to look at Open Source Software (OSS) is “free source code”. That’s the human readable lines of code — millions in many cases. To use this code, you’d have to compile it and do many other software engineering tasks that are too numerous to mention. However, if you’re a software engineer needing an operating system for an embedded system you have a choice: write one from scratch or download the free lines of source code.
Companies can use open source for basic features and then re-allocate R&D resources toward value added and differentiated features and functions. Giving back is an important part of the open source community as well.
Open source applies to hardware as well. Here the specification is “open sourced”. The most relevant open source hardware project for Last Mile providers is the OpenCORD project. CORD (Central Office Re-Architected as a Data Center) was a creation of the Open Networking Lab and AT&T. (On.Lab is now part of the Open Networking Foundation [ONF.]) It is also under the governance of the LINUX Foundation. CORD is comprised of open source software modules (e.g., ONOS, XOS) and the open source CORD hardware specifications.
Our hut is an example of the incumbent broadband providers’ goal to drive cost down, increase efficiencies, and free up resources to invest to be more Cloud-like.
Sharing the Love
Cloud companies love open source as well. They’ve started open sourcing all the stuff they buy in volume, including servers and switches. An early initiative is the Open Compute Project (OCP). OCP’s tag line is “taking control of your technology future”. The focus is “reimagining hardware, making it more efficient, flexible and scalable” and to “break open the black box of proprietary IT infrastructure….” This sounds like another way of saying “vendor lock-in”. The project’s initial focus was on “generic” servers. Since its early success, the OCP has grown to close to 100 members from throughout the ecosystem. AT&T’s open source fiber hut project is through OCP. The thought is since the process worked great for servers, let’s try it for huts. Why not?
Cloud companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, et al) have assets existing in their massive data centers. Their business, like all, depends on reaching customers. And Cloud companies reach most of their customers through some type of access network. And for these companies, the best scenario is when more people and things have access to high speed and low latency connections.
We’ve heard Cloud companies are “agile” and “nimble”. They’re also cash rich and powerful. Yet, Google Fiber learned the access network is easy until you leave PowerPoint. I believe Google/Alphabet’s strategy was to spur the incumbents to act. They did act, in the same locations Google Fiber did. This is the stalemated game of Risk© referenced in my last article. (See The Real ILEC Transformation: The True Path to Open Access in ISE magazine’s September 2017 issue at https://isemag.com/2017/09/the-real-ilec-transformation/.)
For now, it’s unlikely other Cloud companies are going to overbuild. Yet, they aren’t going to wait.
OCP was a big impact to server vendors. They didn’t stop there. The Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP) was born.
The TIP-ing Point?
TIP was founded in February 2016 and is an “engineering-focused initiative driven by operators, suppliers, developers, integrators, and startups to disaggregate the traditional network deployment approach. The collective aim of this community is to collaborate on new technologies, examine new business approaches and spur new investments into the telecom space”. TIP has rapidly grown as well.
To illustrate the scope of TIP, their projects include: Edge Computing, Open Cellular, OpenRAN, vRAN Fronthaul, and Open Optical Packet Transport. If you make or buy things like this, your ecosystem is being disrupted. TIP has grown beyond the initial Facebook-led project and is gaining ecosystem-wide relevancy quickly.
TIP and OCP are ecosystem-impacting forces with many interesting angles. The Cloud companies thrive on speed and innovation. Yet, their abilities to grow subscribers, develop new innovative high bit rate/low latency applications, and grow top line revenue, are becoming limited by Last Mile infrastructure. Thus, the Cloud companies are spending significant resources to eliminate barriers and excuses for fixed and mobile broadband providers across the globe to upgrade and expand their access networks.
Back to Our Hut
What would an open source fiber hut look like? What is “open” is the specification. With that, the global community of fiber hut users can co-define an open specification, and vendors can build huts and sub-components of the specification that are interoperable, thereby eliminating “vendor lock-in” for fiber distribution huts.
Open source fiber huts may not seem to be a big thing. But, the forces that led AT&T to propose an open source fiber hut initiative provide a snapshot of today’s broadband ecosystem’s forces.
LINUX started the open source wave. AT&T has already donated millions of lines of code they developed internally. Now, Cloud companies, dependent on broadband service providers for growth, are funding the open source projects for things they may never buy. Because of all this activity, you can now build and operate an entire broadband network using open source software and hardware including — the open source fiber hut. This is a wave that continues to grow and impact the business of broadband.
Next, let’s open source pole attachments?