Mavenir sees Huawei ban as O-RAN opportunity

As European governments this week made decisions on how large a role China’s Huawei will play in next-gen networks, U.S.-based Mavenir is looking to capitalize on the desire for more vendor diversity, both at home and abroad.

Mavenir SVP John Baker told FierceWireless that the company, in addition to Tier 1 customers, already has relationships with smaller and regional operators and is now working with a number of them on opportunities following last year’s FCC vote to bar Huawei and ZTE from Universal Service Fund support.

Huawei gear has come into question globally as the U.S. pushes allies to ban the vendor giant from their networks, citing security concerns related to Huawei’s ties with the Chinese government. Huawei continues to deny allegations that it could be forced into state-sponsored activities like espionage or disruption.

RELATED: U.K. allows limited Huawei role in 5G networks

The FCC decision to designate Huawei and ZTE as national security threats and prohibit service providers from using the USF to purchase equipment from the vendors is open for public comment until Feb. 3.The annual $8.5 billion USF subsidizes U.S. broadband deployment through four separate programs, with many recipients providing coverage in rural or underserved areas of the country. In December, the FCC proposed scrapping its flawed Mobility Phase II program and instead subsidizing up to $9 billion for rural 5G deployments over the next 10 years.  

While Huawei gear is absent from major U.S. wireless networks, the vendor counts smaller operators as customers, and lawmakers have proposed allocating up to $1 billion to help providers “rip and replace” insecure network gear that’s already in place.

Mavenir, a software-focused company that is already present in major core networks, is a relative newcomer to the radio access network (RAN) side, and sees the Huawei ban as an opportunity to help Tier 2 and Tier 3 operators transition to open RAN and virtualized architectures for 4G and 5G.

Although a newer entrant in terms of RAN, Baker noted that Mavenir has been pioneer of virtualized platforms, and already supplies many virtualized core elements in U.S. networks. For example, Mavenir currently carries all of T-Mobile’s 4G IMS core traffic, and has a 28% global market share in virtualized IMS. Mavenir also works with AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, as well as regional players.  

RELATED: UK’s O2 taps non-traditional vendors for O-RAN project

“So you get the advantage of virtualized core, but now that we have virtualized RAN with the OpenRAN, we can address the complete end-to-end capabilities for these guys [Tier 2 and Tier 3 operators] and we can do it cost-effectively,” Baker said.

He wouldn’t provide specifics, but said Mavenir expects to make announcements “sooner [rather] than later.”

When asked if there’s hesitation among smaller carriers to move to an open architecture, Baker acknowledged that it represents a jump “technology-wise and organizationally” because most have followed the larger operators in terms of typical network deployments that use custom hardware, resulting in vendor lock-in.

“Virtualized RAN is essentially new to all of the operators, so there’s a risk in doing it that way,” he said, adding that there will be learning curves.

Baker pointed to retraining and new skill sets needed to implement Open RAN technology.

“In terms of organizational training…you’re asking engineers that were trained on dedicated hardware to become essentially software engineers and build software on compute platforms,” he noted. “But as a provider of that, we accept that we’ve got to help these operators get through that growing pain.”

Mavenir is a 4G and 5G provider and with its software, Baker said the company can handle current 4G technology as well as future generations on the same platform, without carrying the legacy technology baggage within its portfolio, compared to traditional big vendors.

“We’ve been replacing Ericsson and Nokia in various markets,” he said. “By being very focused you can support the same number of customers with a lot less people, and then obviously do it at a lot lower price.”

RELATED: Britain hedges on Huawei, US senators suggest O-RAN as option

Texas-based Mavenir employees roughly 3,200 people and counts Telefonica and Vodafone among new international customers of its virtualized 4G/5G OpenRAN software product.

Baker cited a lack of U.S.-based manufacturing as one major challenge in implementing Open RAN using U.S. suppliers, noting that much production had shifted to places like China. Radio technology is the other glaring challenge he noted, in a market currently dominated by Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia.

As mentioned, Mavenir software focused so doesn’t supply radio hardware but works with third-party vendors and partners. One argument against complete bans on Huawei abroad has been a lack of cost-effective alternatives.

“The U.S. lost ground in terms of producing RF components,” Baker said. “We’re trying to bring that technology back to the U.S., so investment in RF manufacturing and RF technology is still an important part of this.”

That lends itself to newly introduced legislation in the U.S. that would provide over $1 billion to invest in Western-based alternatives to Huawei and ZTE, and also require the FCC to direct at least $750 million to create an R&D fund to support O-RAN technology.

Mavenir is working down paths to participate in those funding opportunities, Baker said. That includes recent visits with FCC officials (PDF), filings show. The company has a lot of R&D activity happening at its Richardson, Texas headquarters, including 5G trials, he added. 

“The challenge with new companies like Mavenir coming on the scene is their ability to scale and bring these new products to market,” Baker said. “Clearly any benefit we can get from funding sources would truly help grow the scale of this thing and to become a true worldwide player in all of those elements.”