Mavenir opens up new front to boost 5G NR and O-RAN development

Mavenir has opened two business units in Stockholm that lean heavily on ex-Ericsson staff, but it doesn’t want to be like Ericsson. Oh no.

Mavenir has opened a new development centre in Stockholm as it aims to scale up its 4G and 5G virtual RAN productisation.

“US company opens new office in Europe…” Move on, nothing to see, right? But there’s a bit more to this one. 

The office and lab, located just a short trip away from Ericsson’s power base in Kista, will house a radio access business unit tasked with commercialising vRAN 4G and 5G solutions based on O-RAN specifications, and another focussed on emerging business opportunities in the enterprise and IoT space. Both business units are led by ex-Ericsson employees in Mikael Rylander and Aniruddho Basu, and are heavily staffed by ex-Ericsson engineers and staff. At the moment there are 30 or so employees based in the building – a number that could double.

Mavenir CEO Pardeep Kohli told an invited group of operators and partners, most of who seemed to have worked for Ericsson at one point or another, that his intention is not to build another Ericsson, but to take the opportunity offered by “softwarisation” of the radio baseband to do things differently. The unit is based in Stockholm because, Kohli said, outside of China and Finland that’s where all the radio engineers are.

Is the writing on the wall for the old way of building the RAN?

So what’s the plan? Virtualisation and softwarisation have swallowed up appliance-dependent businesses across the network – and the next to go will be the ASIC-based radio baseband, Kohli said. A cloud-based network platform would enable operators to deploy more flexibly, attract innovators from other sectors and create shared value above the network.

Rylander is ex Global Head of Radio Portfolio at Ericsson, and has been tasked with moving the commercialisation of Mavenir’s product to the next level. At present the company has a vRAN 4G product that can run on x86 servers, with an architecture based on either 3GPP’s split option 2, or the 7.2 option. That means it can interface to radio units from a variety of providers. It doesn’t have a commercial 5G offering (more on this later).

The 4G software is in trials in South America and Mavenir also has a trial in India that it says it is about to go live, with a further one due in Europe next year. So the next stage for Rylander is to get the product commercialised, scaleable and operational in telco cloud environments and across different deployment scenarios. That means being able to make radio processing software work in a cloud datacentre environment, with the scaling and management capabilities that come with it. This, as Altiostar and Rakuten found out, is non-trivial.

Rylander: “Radio is really the most real time system – you can’t find any more advanced real time systems. It’s a difficult application, of course, but I would argue that not doing it on x86 makes it more difficult. You have a lot of things going for you, it’s easier to find good programmers, good tools, easier to programme, there’s more freedom when you programme.”

The company made a decision to move from its previous reference technology stack to a new provider, and also decided to extend support from its existing adoption of the 3GPP 7.2 split to also support Split 2. This is a higher level split that means central units can be sited up to 500km from the cell site. (It is this split that BT is investigating for its in-building enterprise neutral host offering, as covered in TMN earlier this year.)

In market development terms, amongst the “new era” radio vendors, that puts Mavenir behind Altiostar in terms of market commercialisation. Altiostar is forging a deep path within Rakuten, with the Japanese operator also owning a large stake in the company.

You could also legitimately place Mavenir behind fellow challenger Parallel Wireless, which has a 5G capability as part of its “All G” software model, and is currently involved in Vodafone commercial trials in Turkey and Africa based on TIP specifications.

However, Parallel is not a member of the O-RAN Alliance, and it is upon O-RAN’s interfaces and specifications that Mavenir is placing its bets. Rylander also points out that Mavenir is different from the other start-ups in that it has a core network capability, as well as a cloud-based messaging platform. And whereas Altiostar is at greater scale within Rakuten, he wonders if the company might be piling a great many resources into that effort, leaving it spread thinner elsewhere.

But what of Mavenir’s difference from Ericsson, and the other incumbent NEPs? When Rylander himself was at Ericsson, what was his view of the open RAN and a decomposed vRAN on commercial hardware?

Picking his words carefully, Rylander says, “I think when I was at Ericsson I realised there is a technology change coming. It was difficult to tell when it would really hit, but I could see it emerging, found it interesting and wanted to understand more and see if it can be applied in this space. What I learnt has really opened my eyes. Mavenir as a company is virtualisation. It solves problems with different thinking.

“To really innovate and get this business taking the next step you need openness. The more scale you have the more innovation and the cheaper it gets. If you want to do a high volume server – here’s the market. If you want to do low cost radio, or niche radio, do the 7.2 split and you have a market for it. If you have an idea how to bring down cost or make an application on a base station, and you are a researcher, you can write the code. So this is why I think an open system has those advantages. It will get to scale faster and leverage cloud technology better.” 

“It’s a business decision for them. But they will all end up there in the end.”

So does he think the major NEPs will move to this environment?

“It’s a business decision for them. But they will all end up there in the end,” is his reply. 

And maybe it is the case that to really get good 5G you need an open system so you can interface with all the possibilities that 5G gives you in the enterprise. 

“Of course that existing ecosystem will roll on and the question is at what pace and what cost, and what kind of penetration will you get. They [the NEPs] have a lot of things going for them, they have done a lot of Gs, can prove this is working, but at what cost? What kind of flexibility do you need as an MNO in the future?” 

A 5G demo

The company is also looking to 5G, and demonstrated a virtualised L1 operating on an off the shelf Wolfpass server, communicating to a simulated radio over an Open RAN based fronthaul interface. 

The server running the Mavenir 5G NR Layer 1 software

Mavenir is also developing a reference capability for 5G radio with massive MIMO and mmWave support with O-RAN interface support, using new chip designs from the market.

Soren Norberg, VP Radio R&D, Mavenir, and until recently head of Ericsson’s LTE & 5G Beijing Research Center, said that he was demonstrating the radio software using just two cores of a 40 CPU general purpose server, instead of a specialised ASIC-based hardware design. 

But the real advance is in using the vRAN software with the 5G NR O-RAN interface to the radio unit. Here, he said, vendors had traditionally kept the interface “secret”. “The reason is the money they make is on the radio. And they cannot allow competition on the radio or they destroy the market for themselves. 

“If you make that interface open then more companies can make radios. You can build a radio with 150 people no problem, the problem is you don’t have a market. Now we generate a market by having this interface open.”

The company is far from the first to have demonstrated L1 capability on COTS hardware, but that’s not really the point. What it wants to do is develop the reference radio platform along with the softwarisation of the baseband and the O-RAN interface to kickstart an ecosystem of specialised and low cost radios.  

CEO Kohli again: “The pace of change means there is no sense in proprietary hardware. Now we are just left with the radio baseband.”

Radio chips have made building radios easy. Open interfaces will create the market – Mavenir

(Disclosure: Mavenir covered costs for Keith Dyer to attend its opening event.)