Triangle, Mavenir tout first deployed open RAN network for FCC’s rip & replace

Smaller operators are waiting to hear about funding from the U.S. government to pay for the costs of ripping out Chinese equipment and replacing it with gear deemed secure, but Triangle Communications couldn’t wait any longer. 

The Havre, Montana-based company is undergoing a full network transformation, thanks to Mavenir, as part of the FCC’s rip and replace program, which calls for the removal of gear previously provided by Huawei and ZTE. Formally known as the FCC’s Reimbursement Program under the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, a bipartisan group of 30 lawmakers last month sent a letter to Senate leadership asking that a $3.7 billon funding shortfall be addressed.

Meanwhile, Mavenir today announced the turn-up of a cloud-native Converged Packet Core, open Radio Access Network (RAN) and O-RAN compliant Radio Units (RUs) for Triangle Communications. Mavenir describes the Triangle deployment as a first of its kind, where Mavenir has, on a turnkey basis, replaced the Chinese network components with new infrastructure. Mavenir is based in Richardson, Texas.

Triangle Communications CEO Craig Gates told Fierce that of course, they’d like to have full funding for the project and they’re watching what happens in Washington, D.C.

But “I don’t think we can wait,” he said, especially when there’s a mandate in place. “In our opinion, we have to make the most of what we have and do as much as we can while we have it and move forward.”

Gates said that pre-Mavenir, his company had been using three of the major providers’ equipment, but that’s a model he does not like. “Once they get you, you’re pretty much treated like a captured audience” in that they continue to ask for “ransom” for proprietary technology, he said.

He prefers a model where the operator can choose what best suits their needs, based on standards, that allows all players to get in on the action, rather than use the solution “that we may be getting pushed upon us by somebody else that thinks they know what’s best for us,” he said.

Tim Nixdorf, VP of Operations at Triangle, shared similar experiences. “We did consider a more traditional manufacturer for a replacement, but as we began to work with Mavenir, there were several things that stood out,” including the chance to use standards-based open RAN architecture.

Not all small or regional operators were jumping at the chance to use open RAN, which some of the larger, incumbent infrastructure providers have characterized as not quite ready for prime time.

A lot of times, smaller carriers are told that software and/or hardware needs to be vetted out by the larger carriers first.

That's not how Mavenir sees it. “It’s a partnership,” Nixdorf said. “They rolled up their sleeves and they’re working with us throughout the process. We’re not running into anything that between the two of us we can’t handle.”

Triangle is asking to be reimbursed for about $20 million to $21 million in the hopes that is what the total cost will be in the end, but they won’t know for sure until it’s done. It’s an entirely new network. “It’s literally from the ground up,” he said.

The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) has explained to lawmakers that the “rip and replace” moniker is somewhat misleading because operators can’t just rip out their old network and replace it with a new one. For a period of time, they may need to run two separate networks before permanently making the switch, which adds to the overall cost.

Triangle still has two networks running, but they’re not a big believer that two networks are required simultaneously for an extended period of time; it’s possible to cut it over as they go.

No RIC here

Loris Zaia, VP of Major Accounts U.S. at Mavenir, worked at Ericsson for 15 years and said he understands the strategy that incumbent suppliers use to keep systems closed, but with open RAN, the whole idea is for operators to have the ability to mix and match from different vendors. That makes the process more competitive from a cost and quality perspective.

And while there’s been some confusion about what’s ready and what’s not, he said open RAN components are now available for every part of the open RAN system, including the radio, the centralized unit (CU), the distributed unit (DU) and the software that runs on top of that – it’s all available today.

Zaia said there’s no need for a RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) in Triangle’s situation. It’s not a necessary part of an open RAN network and is usually there to provide benefits for larger scale operators that need a lot more automation, he said. In this case, the network management system pretty much takes care of all the functions needed to manage a network the size of Triangle’s, but it can be added later as it's basically software, he noted.

The hope is that going forward, open RAN will be more economical than the old proprietary networks. That’s to be determined, but it’s worth noting that a number of smaller or regional carriers didn’t perceive a need to rip out their Huawei gear when the idea was initially presented to them.

Triangle executives said their old Huawei gear worked, and they had better reliability than they did with some alternatives from other big suppliers.  

In a rural market, it’s not so much that they have a lot of population to cover for bandwidth or throughput – it’s being able to reach a long distance from the towers, and that’s one of the things they’re getting from Mavenir.

“We’ve done the side-by-side comparisons and we’re getting phenomenal performance out of the Mavenir network,” Nixdorf said. It’s reaching out as far as what Huawei did for coverage and “I couldn’t be happier with that kind of performance.”