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On an ordinary workday in mid-2016, a handful of Facebook engineers were sitting on the couches in a corner of the company’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters when one of them tossed out a wacky idea.

He suggested doing something that had never been done before and could upend the $350 billion telecommunication market.

“It can’t be so difficult to build our own system,” the engineer said, referring to the telecom equipment that sends data across cables and wireless networks, a system that could be faster, yet cost less, than the pricey equipment sold by big vendors like Huawei, Ericsson, Cisco, or Juniper Networks.

The engineer was suggesting building the telecom industry’s first “white box” transponder, made with off-the-shelf parts such as chips from Broadcom and Acacia Communications, optical equipment from Lumentum, and software from one of the many new networking startups cropping up these days.

Facebook’s director of engineering, Hans-Juergen Schmidtke, who was among those on the couch that day, was at first a naysayer.

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