Mavenir held its annual analyst event this week and highlighted some important information highlighting its progress in transitioning to a maturing ecosystem player in the telecom equipment industry. The company highlighted its recent Koch Brothers $500M investment; existing investors include Intel/Nvidia and Siris Capital, who remain majority equity holders. The company highlighted that it grew revenues and bookings in the mid 20’s percent year-over-year in its Fiscal 2020, an impressive figure. Two main themes came from the show. First, the company’s RAN portfolio is picking up steam. Second, the company’s portfolio now spans very wide, from telecom core to RAN.
The RAN portfolio has made significant progress. The company claims over 20 deployments in 14 countries. And, Mavenir has demonstrated the capability to deploy on AWS, IBM Cloud, Microsoft Azure, Oracle Cloud, Google Cloud, and VMWare. The company spent a great deal of time reviewing definitions of various Open RAN terminology, to address confusion, spanning from vRAN, O-RAN, C-RAN, Cloud-RAN, and Open vRAN. We’ve seen many public statements from Mavenir, its competitors, operators and pundits, alike, espousing the various benefits of some or all of these systems. We think the point Mavenir was making at its conference is that Open vRAN is the most open, interoperable system. When operators enable open systems, of course, it allows Mavenir and other vendors to bid on deals for networks that have existing equipment from traditional vendors like Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, and ZTE. We see Mavenir’s efforts to work with various infrastructure companies and systems like AWS and VMWare as a means of gaining a foothold with operators who are trialing or in the early stages of deploying these various infrastructure systems. Speaking of partners, the company claims it has relationships with nearly 15 Remote Radio Unit (RRU) players. The company says it can deliver Massive MIMO capabilities to customers, which means that its RAN systems can satisfy what would be considered mainstream 5G use-cases; this represents very significant progress over last year’s RAN capabilities.
Mavenir’s portfolio is extensive. The company made separate presentations about the following topics: RAN, OSS, Radio, Packet Core, Mobile Core, BSS/Digital Enablement, Security, Private Networks, and Enterprise over three days. With over 5,000 employees spanning the globe, exposure to the most relevant parts of the mobile infrastructure industry, Mavenir is a serious contender for deals. The company also highlighted that its telecom core technology uses modern programming techniques that enable it to operate on cloud infrastructure; among these are fully containerized micro-services design. The company shared that most microservices file sizes are under 25 Mbytes, evidence that the systems are designed as microservices (and can load fast).
The fact that in April 2021, well-known Koch Bros made a $500M “strategic minority” equity investment in the company is an important validation of Mavenir’s place in the telecommunications industry. We see the investment as a reinforcement of the company’s balance sheet and an opening to new customers.
We attended the Mobile World Congress last week in Barcelona along with an estimated 104,00 others from nearly every country in the world. We met with over 42 companies and nearly 200 people at the show and attended many press announcements. While most of the MWC19 headlines were about 5G, we were struck that much of the hyped growth will in fact be the result of deployments in enterprises and could be served using unlicensed (or lightly licensed) spectrum. Many of the presentations and product announcements suggested as much, if you read between the lines. We'll step through these two, enterprise and unlicensed next.
The Enterprise opportunity. A major theme we picked up at the Mobile World Congress show is simple: that for the mobile telecom market to grow, 5G must expand to the enterprise. We see ample evidence that without an expansion to the enterprise, the cellular market as we know it will likely experience declines as consumers expect more bandwidth for less in the future. The 5G narrative at the MWC19 show was straightforward: German & Chinese robots, trucks and drones need 5G to unlock the potential for future growth. There were robots, drones and trucks bleeping and whirring to make the point for visitors. We wouldn't argue with the contention that robots and very fast moving vehicles that are controlled remotely need very low latency; yet, there are so many use cases that don't actually need such low latencies.
Wireless is just a small part of "Enterprise." Enterprise 5G use cases being presented at MWC, including the wirelessly controlled robot, involved far more than just a wireless connection to succeed. To automate a workplace with robots, there is far more technology that has to be brought to market, including software, integration, wireline networking and the list goes on. None of these capabilities have traditionally been delivered by telecom equipment vendors; they have been delivered by vendors who have served the enterprise market (examples would be Cisco, IBM, Oracle, etc.).
Unlicensed Opportunity is Robust. In both the enterprise market and the outdoor market, unlicensed spectrum has tremendous potential. This goes for a) WiFi, which is already immensely popular, b) for in-building 'lightly licensed' CBRS (a US-only market), c) the soon-to-be released 6 Ghz spectrum, as well as d) outdoor mid-band spectrum like 5 Ghz (already very popular), e) outdoor 60 Ghz (like the kind relating to the Facebook Terragraph project) and f) 900 Mhz LoRa. While each of these unlicensed (or lightly licensed) frequencies was discussed at the show, 5G licensed was so overwhelmingly promoted it was hard for these exciting unlicensed markets to get any airtime. We think this lack coverage relatively speaking is a dis-service and we'll touch on just a few of them in this post.
Wi-Fi isn't going away. Related to the enterprise 5G topic, we found points and counterpoints about 5G versus WiFi interesting. Huawei's Enterprise group issued a press release about its 802.11ax (WiFi-6) expectations and how important WiFi is for the enterprise market. On the other hand, Huawei's telecom group was pursuing a press agenda about partnering with Operators to pursue the 5G market. Few companies on earth possess as broad a produt portfolio as Huawei, who has ample expertise, market share and credibility in both the mobile wireless market and the enterprise wireless market. We felt this dual-message (5g AND WiFi) was well-balanced. On the other hand, vendors and operators who have historically focused on cellular-only were pushing a "5G will displace WiFi" or at least a "5G is the only solution for mission critical enterprise" agenda. We feel that 5G-only in the enterprise message is to broad-based; we think 5G in the enterprise is far more nuanced because:
802.11ax/WiFi-6 is cellular-like. 802.11ax, which was launched commercially in 4Q18, incorporates many cellular-like capabilities. Many of the technical merits debates presented at MWC compared older 802.11ac WiFi against LTE and 5G NR. This is not a fair comparison because both 5G NR and 802.11ax actually began shipping commercially generally at the same time (4Q18 and 1Q19).
There is very little overlap between the Wi-Fi opportunity and that for cellular. The overlap in opportunities being discussed as the 5G enterprise opportunity at MWC have surprisingly little overlap with the vertical industries currently being served by Enterprise-class WiFi. Take manufacturing, which represents 9% of the Enterprise WLAN market by units in 4Q18. Or the outdoor WLAN market, which is only 3% of total Enterprise-class market in 4Q18 by shipments. The point is, there is very little overlap between the Enterprise WLAN market and the 5G enterprise market being discussed at MWC.
LTE will be the workhorse for many years. Additionally, let's consider the fact that many of the use-cases being discussed at MWC will initially be served by LTE, not 5G. In the enterprise market, the use of LTE in unlicensed (or lightly licensed, like the US's CBRS) bands is often called private LTE. The main difference between unlicensed LTE and licensed LTE is that with unlicensed, the enterprise can work directly with enterprise-focused VARs, resllers, solutions providers and complementary equipment suppliers, while with licensed LTE, the enterprise will need to work directly with its local mobile service provider who owns the spectrum, likely ensuring that the operators becomes the prime integrator of the project, or at least part of it. Private LTE will therefore have fewer parties involved (no operator), lower monthly costs (no operator) and will likely get the project to completion faster (fewer parties and a prime vendor/contractor/solutions-provider with expertise in the enterprise's vertical market). So, why not consider unlicensed/lightly-licensed LTE instead of licensed 5G to achieve the goals illustrated in many of the 5G use cases at MWC?
Where will WiFi lose out? If it has wheels or wings on it, Wi-Fi is not your friend - look to cellular.
To conclude, yes, 5G will fit some very exciting use-cases, especially those for low-latency applications. These are indeed exciting and deserve attention. We see it this way for the wireless industry: if the things involved have wheels or wings, or are of such high value that you must use cellular, there's a good chance LTE will cut it. And next, it makes sense to consider using unlicensed spectrum - which is just emerging as viable for many uses.