The open route to 5G

Industry interview: Mavenir

Guy Clapperton talks to Stefano Cantarelli, chief marketing officer at Mavenir

Imagine there was a major new technology that was going to transform everybody’s life. Conspiracy theories aside, it was going to make everything faster, and enable objects such as autonomous vehicles to communicate with each other instantaneously so the world would be safer and more efficient.

Now add a caveat or two. Assume the operators of this new technology were dependent on two providers who offered both the hardware and software, with many competitors having dropped out over the years. This might be as much due to politics as technology or business. Add to this the idea that the existing version of this new technology is essentially plastered over old infrastructure and consider also that it’s a closed technology, so anyone wanting to add bits will have to master the gateway into it rather than use a common open interface.

The 5G duopoly

These are all elements of the infrastructure that currently makes up 5G, the super-fast wireless network currently being rolled out across the world. And this is what concerns Stefano Cantarelli, chief marketing officer of Mavenir, a disruptive and innovative player in the global telecommunications space. His main worry is the absence of competition. An industry veteran, he has seen the mobile network infrastructure providers dwindle from a vibrant community to effectively just two players, Nokia and Ericsson, with Huawei the most recent to exit because of political concerns. “Without competition you find companies sit back and take a rest,” he says.

“Without competition there is no innovation. And although there’s no sign of it happening, if either of the infrastructure providers came into difficulties in the coming years we’d really end up in trouble.”

Opening up a new model

The difficulties with the existing infrastructure are numerous, Cantarelli argues, partly because it is restricted so the hardware manufacturer makes the software as well. A preferable model is Open RAN (Radio Access Network), in which the whole structure is virtualised and made multi-vendor. Mavenir is one of a number of companies promoting this new approach.

Virtualisation consists of making the software independent of the hardware so it is possible to fire up a virtual computer (or other device) anywhere. This allows an infrastructure to be set up anywhere, offering extreme flexibility.

There are obstacles. Inertia is one of them. There was an adage in the IT industry 30 years ago: nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. The same holds true of the current “safe” options, which is why Mavenir is calling on governments to incentivise mobile carriers to adopt the Open RAN infrastructure. Its openness allows smaller, local companies to add specific products and functions without having to master both hardware and software production. This would widen participation and make competition and therefore innovation better. “Some governments are already helping,” says Cantarelli, “with tax, with help finding premises and with incentives that support the local economy.”

Equally importantly, Open RAN allows for a more thorough implementation of what’s known as standalone 5G: at the moment nearly all the 5G service in the world consists of a 5G radio signal overlaid on 4G or older infrastructure. Think about putting performance petrol, suited to racing cars, in a family vehicle and you get the idea. Open RAN, with its virtualised multi-vendor approach, makes it possible to get the best of all worlds, allowing the use of one company’s radio signal with another’s processors.

Unlocking 5G for everyone

Currently, the unit that distributes a network signal and the radio signal that carries it are locked together, which means the supplier must specialise in both. It has to be a giant, which is why there are now only two. Governments, and indeed mobile network operators, would like there to be more.

According to the Telecoms Infrastructure Project – a Facebook- backed industry group looking to help extend advanced mobile network services – there are now 15 commercial deployments of Open RAN across the world, with Vodafone UK among them. A further 50 trials of the technology are also happening.

Open RAN is a powerful alternative in a market whose operators are demanding a greater choice. It opens the field up to smaller, more localised suppliers, who will need to innovate to compete. Cantarelli is clear: although his job is in marketing, his soul is in technology. “I am all about those technologies that disrupt the way we work,” he says, “And this is the biggest disruptor to this established market for 20 years.”

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© Business Reporter 2021

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