Facebook launches telco infrastructure accelerator with Orange

Back in February, the Facebook-led Telecom Infrastructure Project led a call to put $170 million into startups focusing on solutions to improve infrastructure: the switching technologies, engineering, cabling and other components that go into building networking for internet and other communications services. Today comes one more advance on that front: Facebook and the TIP are working with French telco Orange to launch a new “Telecom Track” in the Orange Fab accelerator based in Paris to find more startups to fill this niche.

Not too much is being divulged on what kinds of startups are being sought out, except to say that they will need to be based in France for the accelerator. “The partnership will look to pursue the best innovations and talent within the sector,” Orange notes, with the selected startups getting mentorship from Facebook; other TIP members (there are dozens including carriers like Vodafone, Millicom, Airtel and BCS; tech companies like Intel; and infrastructure companies like Nokia); and Orange.

This is the first time that Orange has worked with a corporate partner for Fab, and it is the first time that it has launched a specific track around a vertical, an Orange spokesperson confirmed for us.

“Facebook is looking forward to working with Orange and TIP to support this start-up accelerator,” said Jay Parikh, head of engineering and infrastructure, Facebook. “Working together, we hope to help identify and support  telecoms network infrastructure innovation while helping pave the way for future breakthroughs.”

Startups have until May 14 to apply. Those selected — we’re trying to get more information on just how many but have yet to get a reply — will get €15,000 ($16,300) as part of the program. Three weeks into the program, they get the chance to pitch their ideas to Orange, TIP, Facebook executives, VCs and other partners from across the TIP Ecosystem Accelerator Center network (these are located in other regions like the UK).

Then at the end of the year, the selected startups will be invited to pitch at an event in San Francisco.

Facebook’s interest in playing a role at the infrastructure level is useful for the company for at least three big reasons.

The first is that building out infrastructure in regions that are currently lacking good connectivity is essential if companies like Facebook hope to continue to grow in these regions. And as growth levels off in more mature markets, emerging markets are a key target for Facebook.

In areas that are lacking partners for investment, it makes sense for Facebook to step in and chip in some of that funding and run trials of new networking systems — as it has done recently in Uganda, where it is building a 770-kilometer (500-mile) fiber backhaul network with Airtel and BCS.

The second is that by having an early hand in building (and potentially owning) some of that infrastructure, Facebook will have a clean and strong level of control over how it can use it longer term. That’s not just for what kind of traffic it chooses to send down those pipes, but also what kind of data it can capture from them.

The third is less commercial and perhaps more optimistic: it’s a way for Facebook to use some of its size and power to help shrink the digital divide. (Whether you believe that faster internet and always-on Facebook are good things or not is, perhaps, another question.)

For Orange — which itself has an extensive emerging market business — it has been running its Fab accelerators around the world since 2013, with the aim of using them to find new talent and technologies that could help it move away from its more legacy business as a carrier and into newer areas of tech.

It’s a strategy that others like Verizon, which owns TechCrunch by way of AOL, is also trying to follow by investing in startups and other initiatives. Indeed, in this case Orange Digital Ventures is also involved and will help with later fundraising for founders in the cohort.

“As part of our network evolution towards 5G and future technologies, there is a huge opportunity to innovate at the network level, and a need to support the bright minds and talents that will keep pushing telecoms innovation forward,” said Mari-Noëlle Jégo-Laveissière, EVP of Innovation, Marketing and Technologies, Orange. “We believe that with our partnership with Facebook  and the opening of the new Telecom Track, we are able to encourage and support this community of startups, which has the ability to really disrupt this space and develop new innovation within telecoms.”