Three Companies To Watch In Private Cellular Networking

I write pretty extensively about private cellular networking. The platform is poised to accelerate digital transformation within enterprise information technology (IT) environments and connect the non-carpeted operational technology (OT) ones. For a quick explanation, IT typically refers to the computer hardware and software in the traditional office environment. OT, on the other hand, is involved with the monitoring and control of manufacturing, industrial assets and processes. From my perspective, presently, three companies stand out for their contribution to private cellular networking and its future potential. I want to dive deeper into each one and provide my insights.            

Nokia 

As a company, Nokia has had its shares of ups and downs. The Finnish cellular infrastructure provider recently named a new CEO, Pekka Lundmark, to help right-size its business units and focus on growth and profitability areas. One of these areas is private cellular networking. To date, Nokia claims over 260 customer wins that span even greater numbers of network deployments. This success far eclipses any of Nokia’s traditional competitors, including Ericsson, Huawei and Samsung Networks. 

I believe one of Nokia’s critical success factors is its laser focus on target industries. These include, but are not limited to: 

  • manufacturing for process automation
  • healthcare for enhanced telemedicine and surgical procedures
  • retail operations supporting intelligent warehousing and replenishment. 

Last week, I spent time with Nokia during its Capital Markets Day, where I was impressed by Mr. Lundmark’s focus on realigning resources for the private networking opportunity. He spoke to a strategy of “Reset, Accelerate, and Scale,” and how private cellular networking should factor largely into the strategic plans for 2021 and beyond. I also recently published a research paper regarding Nokia’s strengths in private networking. If interested, you can find it here.   

Airspan Networks 

Airspan Networks has had an interesting journey. Founded nearly 20 years ago, the company focused its efforts on the now-defunct WiMAX platform but quickly pivoted to 4G LTE. One of its biggest wins helped Sprint build its Magic Box small cell device before the T-Mobile merger. Today, the company has a broad portfolio that supports small cell platforms, fixed wireless access solutions (through its acquisition of Mimosa Networks), Open RAN and CBRS/ OnGo platforms—all of which stand to play a key role in supporting private cellular networking. From my perspective, Airspan has a tremendous headwind behind it, as evidenced by two recent announcements. 

First, the company recently agreed to a merger with New Beginnings Acquisition Corporation (NBA). Not to be confused with professional basketball, NBA is a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC). If you are not familiar with SPACs, they are shell companies that exist for the sole purpose of acquiring companies and taking them public in bypassing the traditional initial public offering process. Under the terms of the deal, the new company will trade under the ticker symbol “MIMO” (clever if you are familiar with Massive MIMO). An expected net of $166M in proceeds should provide investment capital to strengthen a push into 5G radio access network (RAN) product development. 

Second, Airspan announced last week that it will supply Rakuten Japan virtualized RAN hardware, software and infrastructure blueprints to extend further the carriers’ deployment of Open RAN architecture. Rakuten has been the most aggressive adopter of Open RAN in building out both 4G and 5G greenfield networks. It is no secret that Open RAN is getting a lot of attention stateside given its potential to bring North American companies into the 5G supply chain as well as its disruptive capital and operational expense structure. With all of this said, I believe the new Airspan will reap future success given the need for small cell platforms to densify both public and private networks. The company also offers a 4G LTE CBRS portfolio that operates in the 3.5 GHz band and leverages licensed spectrum that is now available to enterprises. Future 5G support will solidify CBRS/OnGo as the go-to for private cellular networking in the United States. I’ve written about CBRS in the past, and if interested you can find that article here.  

Celona

Over the last several months, I have spent time with Celona, a start-up that is taking a different approach by offering its private cellular networking platform as a service. Enterprises are intimately familiar with Wi-Fi, but cellular infrastructure is an entirely different animal, especially when it comes down to licensed spectrum. Celona aims to take the guesswork out of deployment and management and make it akin to Wi-Fi. One of the most impressive features is its 5G Microslicing, which allows enterprises to fine-tune throughput and latency for specific workloads and applications. Carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint also plan to slice its networks to monetize new services such as low latency mobile gaming and enterprise high-resolution intensive video applications. However, I like Celona’s Software as a Service (SaaS) approach as it has the potential to be disruptive from a cost perspective, simplify deployment and streamline ongoing management. 

Recently, Celona announced that over a dozen IT value-added resellers will be offering the platform to its enterprise install base. Celona already has a partnership in place with HPE and Aruba to identify cellular private networking opportunities. I believe that Celona’s IT channel go-to-market strategy is the right move, leveraging scale and a less costly selling process relative to a direct sales model. If you want to learn more about the Celona platform, I recently conducted a webinar with one of its engineers. You can find the recording here

Wrapping up

Private cellular networking is poised for explosive growth and will accelerate enterprise digital transformation. Consequently, I believe that Nokia, Airpsan Networks and Celona are all well-positioned to capitalize on the opportunity. Success will lie in the ease of deployment, management and optimization. I think all of the companies in this article help make the objectives, as mentioned earlier, a reality.