C-RAN, 5G and Other Disruptive RAN Trends Lure Startups

Ed Gubbins

Ed Gubbins

Summary Bullets:

  • Potentially disruptive RAN trends are attracting startups
  • Small cells, C-RAN and 5G are just some of the areas drawing investment and focus

Network technologies are constantly evolving, but when that evolution takes a significant leap, it emits the scent of opportunity to entrepreneurs and other outsiders eager to capitalize on rapid change. Today’s RAN business is certainly no exception, as multiple current trends therein promise enough disruption to tempt new players into the game.

The small-cell market, for example, clearly produced startups on both the access and backhaul sides. We’ve already seen the recent birth of new small-cell base station specialists, such as NuRAN Wireless, which focuses on GSM and EDGE small cells for remote areas, and Accelleran, which targets TD-LTE small cells.

Connected with that movement is the prospect of new RAN architectures that segregate pooled or centralized baseband processing functions from distributed radio end nodes — a stark enough departure from the status quo to lure its own new entrants, despite the fact that incumbent RAN vendors are already offering solutions in this area. So alongside Nokia’s Flexi Zone we see Artemis Networks (analysis here) and Phluido take the stage. Altiostar, which we’ve discussed before, may soon be pulled out of stealth mode by Cisco. They all join SpiderCloud and Airvana – two firms that may seem too old to fit the startup label, but whose positions in pursuit of the C-RAN opportunity certainly do (analysis here).

Some vendors have staked out even narrower targets within the small-cell space: Dali Wireless focuses on fronthaul. Interferex aims at optimizing small-cell networks, including indoors. To be sure, competing against broader solutions will be challenging for these firms. On the other hand, niche specialization could fit well within the interests of existing RAN giants. For example, Alcatel-Lucent recently invested in EBlink, which has been its partner in recent years and which, like Dali, focuses on fronthaul. And Nokia recently acquired Mesaplexx, which produced filters for active antenna solutions (analysis here).

RAN optimization is another fertile area for startups, as Saguna Networks, Vasona Networks and others have proved.

Of course, a major shakeup coming that is bound to spawn a long list of startups is the dawn of 5G. And if you think it’s too early to make that bet, you probably already missed the news last month that Google acquired Alpental, an early stage startup focused on 60 GHz millimeter wave technology, which is often aimed at small-cell backhaul applications today (as well as WiGig and WirelessHD) but which also pops up regularly in discussions of potential 5G access technologies.

This startup activity is good news for major RAN vendors whose R&D budgets may be burdened by a tough competitive environment, as they can let entrepreneurs fund this innovation and acquire the businesses that succeed. The innovations that startups bring benefit operators as well – at least those who keep their eyes open.

About Ed Gubbins
Ed serves as Senior Analyst for Mobile Access Infrastructure in the Current Analysis Service Provider Infrastructure Group. He focuses on tracking, analyzing and reporting on developments impacting mobile infrastructure and mobile networking: 2G and 3G RAN and packet core along with, LTE, metro-scale Wi-Fi and WiMAX.

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