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The telecom ecosystem in the MENA region is very diverse in that while many countries are striving to deploy the latest network innovations, many less mature markets are struggling to keep up. Telecom Review sat down with Mavenir’s head of region in Dubai, Mark Charman, to gain some insight into the latest 5G innovations, trends and developments in the region, specifically in the UAE.

What is Mavenir’s vision?

The need for new network economics is more pressing than ever due to the ever increasing demand for more and faster data combined with flat-to-decreasing per subscriber revenues. The Mavenir mission is to transform the industry. As the industry’s only end-to-end 100% software vendor, we are uniquely positioned to present a new network economic to our operator friends. Operators have to-date been challenged by the fact that they have to buy via an appliance model, specific pieces of proprietary hardware and software. The main technology enabling the change is known as network functions virtualization infrastructure (NFVi), where the cloud datacenter can deploy the software nodes on top. The cost per gigabits is decreased significantly, offering operators the necessary cost savings for the move to 5G.

Operators are also under massive threat from OTT players such as Google and Amazon who are taking a portion of their traditional consumer revenue, specifically voice and messaging. Mavenir is bringing software solutions to allow the operators to recapture that market with revenue-generating solutions, and that’s very important. You’ll appreciate this as a consumer. If you use WhatsApp, FaceTime or Facebook messenger you know that the revenue operators used to get from SMS text messaging is now lost. Mavenir offers a platform-enabled RCS business messaging that provides the same media-rich capability to consumers while giving control back to the operator.

Moving forward, the important piece is not about P2P; it is about brands, aggregators and A2P content that is sent to the consumers with their consent, of course. In fact, one of the operator’s greatest assets is its subscribers and knowledge of its subscriber base, as the brands and aggregators want to be able to reach those consumers through a clean channel. This is important because it eliminates subscriber data from being sold or dispersed in the way that the OTT players monetize their subscriber data.

What are some of the latest projects and initiatives that Mavenir has been working on?

At a high level, it’s been virtualized RAN, virtualized messaging, NFVi, vEPC, 5G core and advanced services (rich business messaging [RBM], messaging as a platform [MaaP]).

A key focus in the region is virtualizing the MVAS and core elements with Mavenir’s virtual IMS (IP multimedia system) and virtualizing the message controller. Most of the operators in the broader MENA region are now moving from hardware/software to a NFVi-based cloud installation with all the core software elements running on virtual machines. Mavenir is working with all the main tier 1 operators from Etisalat to Orange, du, Ooredoo Group, Zain, etc. in this space.

Another priority is the messaging space. Historically, it was text messaging, then it moved to the OTT players, and now Mavenir has introduced rich communication suite (RCS). Setting up a media-rich messaging platform not only helps the operator replace SMS as mentioned earlier, but also provides a clean channel for advertisers, chatbots and application providers to drive down capability towards the subscriber.

The landscape in the MENA region is quite diverse. We have advanced markets such as the UAE where they’re driving and pushing connected vehicles and augmented reality in the 5G space, and then other markets are only just starting their journey deploying 4G networks.

From a Mavenir perspective, we assess the varying needs of these different markets to determine readiness for a software-based cloud infrastructure. Operators have choices in terms of what NFVi hardware to deploy and when they’re going to deploy it. Mavenir is completely agnostic in terms which NFVi HW and which NFV SW (i.e. Openstack, VMware) that an operator can select, which is a very different story from the more traditional full stack OEM that dictate NFVi HW (normally in-house) and specific customized derivatives of NFV SW. This again creates another lock-in which is a fundamental disconnect to the rational of cloud virtualization  

With a strong pedigree in SMS/MMS legacy messaging and IMS, we are transforming legacy messaging into RCS; it’s a process that needs a broad ecosystem of brands and aggregators to be included. We have the ability to not only look at the great new stuff like the 5G core, vRAN and virtualized IMS, but at the same time, we’re also able to serve less mature markets that still need legacy messaging like SMS for bought P2P and A2P that serve business and subscribers with lower-end handsets.

What are the focus areas for Mavenir here in the UAE?

We are working with the two major operators in the UAE, Etisalat and du. Both of these operators have been using Mavenir products for many years and we continue to work with them in the 5G core and RCS areas.

5G cloud native core technology is a dramatic shift from the legacy networking paradigm with new capabilities such as network slicing enabling the scaling down of solutions so they can be pushed closer to the edge. Instead of serving only a handful of applications and device types, Mavenir’s 5GC supports applications for consumer, enterprise and industrial purposes.

The design of Mavenir’s RCS opens up possibilities to provide advanced communication between third party businesses and messaging users for a wide range of services such as chatbots, plugins, artificial intelligence and other third-party industrial applications.

Have the needs of your clients changed over time? If so, how?

One of the major changes is the need and desire for purposeful hardware. Gone are those days! Our customers are now very comfortable with the drive towards software, especially in advanced markets. Operators now understand the importance of a cloud native SW and infrastructure and standing it up in datacenters, so we’re seeing a fundamental shift towards virtualization happening faster and faster.

Also, there’s an emphasis and obsession from the operators seeking vendors that can help protect and drive new revenue streams, and that’s why I go back to A2P messaging. So, we have seen a new trend where the operators are asking us how we can help them make more money. The operators were not keen to involve themselves in revenue share agreements because they were worried about the vendor taking too much of that, but now they are more open to it, within reason. So, we have seen a new trend in a need for new revenue generating services.

I think that one of the things that’s also changing and evolving is within the network with virtualized software.

With Mavenir’s 5G core which is fully web scale-based on containers and dockers, we have the ability to build and instantiate any 5GC core function with minutes. For example, through a few clicks of the Mavenir cloud range GUI, a network operation team member can enable an entire 5G core network, This can manifest itself in software on the operator’s NFVI hardware; we can do that within minutes. When operators see this, they can’t believe it since traditionally a core deployment used to take around six to nine months. The speed in which the network can breathe, shrink and grow bigger is becoming one of the key changes in the market. At Mavenir, we’re driving that innovation and disruption; it is part of our corporate DNA.

Do you think the region is ready for 5G? What still needs to be done to ensure the right infrastructure for 5G deployment?

Yes, I believe this region is very ready for 5G. The people are tech-savvy, always want the latest innovations and they’re ready to have the best handsets. So, I would say the UAE is definitely 5G-ready. However, outside of the UAE, probably not right now. We need to offer these operators a path from 3G to 4G/5G.

At the end of the day, we are only just seeing 5G chipsets getting ready and coming out now on handset and radio appliances. I’m sure the UAE will be the first to grab hold of them and implement them within their network architectures.

From a 5G rollout perspective, Mavenir also has its own virtualized radio solution, vRAN. Mavenir is part of the open RAN/X-RAN initiative, and this is connected very closely to the Facebook telecom infrastructure project. Our approach here is to deploy 5G where the use case requires it and that’s going to drive a standalone business case. We’ve recently done a study to identify a business case that works for 5G - this proposed using 5G hotspots with no full region-wide coverage. In addition, we have been recognized in the region at the 5G MENA event as having the best RAN product.

Mavenir believes that 5G needs to stand up by itself and be financially accountable from the start. For this reason, it is important that when operators deploy 5G, they make the business case a standalone business case delivering something that only the 5G network can handle. It’s rather pointless putting several 5G radios that can only connect to a 4G core network.

We see that it is very dependent on the region and driven by other factors such as the regulatory environment. Some regulators are leading the discussion and making new frequencies available for operators to buy while others are still dealing with a lot of clean-up of legacy.

Unfortunately, many operators can’t get access to these good harmonized frequencies because, for example, military, satellite and broadcast institutions are using them. Frustratingly, most of these institutions are hardly utilizing these frequencies but refuse to give them up, thus slowing down the whole rollout and adoption of 5G and the surrounding ecosystem.

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