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An American open RAN network, interrupted

In 2021, Mavenir won a contract with Triangle Communications to rip out the provider's RAN network supplied by Huawei and replace it with open RAN. But the companies have stayed mostly silent about the project.

Mike Dano

January 5, 2024

7 Min Read
Aerial views above fields in rural Gallatin County, near Bozeman, Montana
(Source: Timothy Swope/Alamy Stock Photo)

Triangle Communications, which operates a small wireless network in Montana, announced almost three years ago that it would replace its traditional radio access network (RAN) with one featuring open RAN technology. But so far, the company's plans have been mired with technical glitches, pandemic delays, freezing winter conditions and most importantly lack of funding.

Like Dish Network and Inland Cellular, Triangle was an early proponent of open RAN technology in the US. Indeed, if its network were fully up and running today, Triangle and its vendor, Mavenir, would have an enviable story to tell as momentum gathers behind open RAN. The technology is now getting attention from big names like AT&T, Vodafone and Ericsson, as well as top officials in the Biden administration.

Triangle's open RAN rollout has been plagued by problems, the biggest of which is funding. Indeed, many companies argue that Congress has not allocated enough federal funding for network operators to replace their traditional RAN equipment supplied by Huawei with open RAN gear from US manufacturers like Mavenir.

Officials from Triangle and Mavenir have mostly been quiet about the operator's ongoing efforts to build an open RAN network across parts of Montana. Triangle sold its mobile network to Verizon in 2021 but continues to operate a fixed wireless network to supplement its wired offerings in Montana. In its filings with the FCC, Triangle said the open RAN network is around 80% finished, and company officials indicated that the network is providing suitable services to customers.

Requesting more time

Triangle is one of dozens of companies participating in the FCC's "rip and replace" program. The effort stems from Congress' passage of the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019, which built on fears among US policymakers that telecom equipment from Chinese companies like Huawei could be used to spy on US companies and citizens. The act requires some US companies – including a number of smaller wireless network operators like Triangle – to remove equipment from Chinese manufacturers.

But the program is rife with troubles. The biggest problem is that Congress has only allocated around 40% of the money that companies say they need to complete the job. Triangle, for example, requested around $19 million but will only get about $7 million, unless Congress allocates more.

Partly as a result, Triangle is among a growing number of companies requesting six-month waivers to complete their "rip and replace" work.

In its waiver request filed late last year, Triangle listed several reasons for its delay in deploying new equipment. For example, the company said COVID-19 slowed work and made supplies difficult to obtain.

Triangle also blamed the weather. "Weather is an issue that Triangle must deal with annually, not only for this project but for all our projects. Even rain causes delays in Montana, as Montana has dirt that is locally called gumbo that makes some roads impassable once wet. The weather caused many delays in both the winter and summer of 22-23," the company wrote.

"Craftsmanship has also been a real challenge," Triangle added, explaining that its network technicians discovered coverage issues at several cell sites. "Triangle personnel had to climb the tower to find many issues with the installation from the contractor," the company wrote. "This caused a delay since the employees had to be pulled from the scheduled work and re-do the work of the contractors that were hired to complete the work correctly the first time."

The company continued: "Triangle surmises that the contractor crew faked the testing results because the employees found that almost all jumpers and their connections had to be replaced and one of the antennas was dead and could not have been turned up with traffic. Triangle had accepted the work of these contractors at several locations and had to go back and check the work that the contractors said was completed. Triangle did not pay these contractors for their work, but it did cost time and money that was not recoverable from the program because we had to put other projects on delay to complete this work."

The FCC late last year granted Triangle's request for an extra six months to complete its "rip and replace" work.

A matter of timing

Some observers believe that Triangle and Mavenir may feel compelled to stay quiet about Triangle's open RAN network because of the possibility that Congress will allocate more funding to the "rip and replace" program. If Triangle and Mavenir were to boast about open RAN success, that could ease the pressure on lawmakers to allocate another $3 billion to the program.

But their silence comes at a cost too, especially to Mavenir, which recently held an analyst event where it touted its extensive work with Dish Network. According to an analyst who attended the event, Triangle wasn't discussed. The analyst requested anonymity because the event was not open to the public.

Mavenir initially hoped its deal with Triangle – first announced in 2021 – would result in more "rip and replace" business, since politically open RAN has been positioned as an alternative to Chinese suppliers like Huawei and ZTE. A US-based vendor like Mavenir would seem to be an ideal choice for American network operators to use in a program designed to replace Chinese suppliers.

But Triangle remains Mavenir's only "rip and replace" contract. Larger equipment vendors like Ericsson and Nokia have since been winning the bulk of such deals.

Open and maybe cheaper

Nonetheless, the details that have been made available about Triangle's open RAN network deployment remain relevant today. For example, Triangle officials told FierceWireless in 2022 that they hoped to use Mavenir's open RAN equipment to free the company from the "ransom" of proprietary technology. They also hoped it would be less expensive than traditional RAN equipment.

"We've done the side-by-side comparisons and we're getting phenomenal performance out of the Mavenir network," Tim Nixdorf, VP of Operations at Triangle, told the publication. "I couldn't be happier with that kind of performance."

Indeed, according to a network equipment pricing catalog published by the FCC, some elements of open RAN technology are in fact less expensive than traditional RAN products.

That dovetails with comments from Inland Cellular, which shifted to open RAN technology with vendor Parallel Wireless in 2020. In 2021, Chip Damato, EVP of Inland Cellular, said the move helped reduce Inland Cellular's overall capital expenses by 40%.

Open RAN "gave us a lot more control over our destiny," Damato explained at the time.

Dish remains America's biggest open RAN network operator. The company has so far spent around $6 billion to light up open RAN equipment across almost 20,000 cell sites nationwide. Dish's vendors include Mavenir, AWS, VMware, Fujitsu and Samsung, among others. Dish's $6 billion price tag is far below what Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T have spent on their own wireless networks in the US, though Dish's network is not as extensive.

Finally, it's worth noting that AT&T managed to lower its networking costs via its recent move to open RAN, although it was more of a business issue rather than a technological one.

"I don't think I'm going to walk out and tell you that O-RAN is the secret sauce to take this down to a single-digit-teens as a percent of revenue capital intensity," said AT&T CEO John Stankey in discussing his company's new five-year, $14 billion deal with Ericsson for open RAN equipment. "I don't believe that will be the case."

Instead, Stankey explained that Ericsson and other 5G network equipment vendors have struggled in recent months with sluggish sales, and AT&T's deal represented an "opportunistic agreement."

As a result, "what we're going to see is more [cost] efficiency on a unit level," via the new agreement, Stankey said.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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