A small technology company that once worked with BT to connect remote fishing villages along the English-Scottish border to basic phone services is angling to fill the gap left by Huawei, after the UK government decided to phase out the Chinese group from 5G telecoms networks.
Airspan, which is based in Boca Raton in Florida and majority-owned by Oak Investment Partners, has made several forays into the UK in the past. As well as providing equipment to connect homes in rural areas to networks, such as its efforts alongside the river Tweed in the Borders during the 1990s, it has also attempted to buy spectrum in auctions.
While the kitmaker’s presence remained small as it struggled to compete with Huawei, Airspan’s chief executive Eric Stonestrom said the government’s decision to remove the Chinese manufacturer from critical infrastructure and to promote the use of alternative suppliers has created a fresh opportunity. “We tended to exit markets where Huawei was dominant,” he said. “We’re now doubling down on the UK,” he said.
Airspan, which is also backed by SoftBank, has worked with the US state department as the UK and US have formed a closer alliance in telecoms policy that saw the British government perform a U-turn on allowing companies to use Huawei in 5G telecoms networks. “The geopolitics is in the right direction with Huawei being removed,” said Mr Stonestrom.
The company plans to double its UK workforce to more than 200 engineers by the middle of next year and says it will undertake an “aggressive” commercial expansion to win business from the country’s telecoms companies, as more look to smaller “open RAN” suppliers to build 5G networks in the UK.
Airspan’s equipment has been used by the likes of Sprint in the US, a deal that brought that network’s owner SoftBank on to its share register, as well as Reliance Jio in India which also became a shareholder. Rakuten’s new mobile network in Japan, which has become the reference for open RAN technology, also used large amounts of Airspan equipment. Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that assembles the iPhone, and Qualcomm, the US chip group, are also minority shareholders in Airspan.
Traditional mobile networks rely on radio access equipment — the kit that sits on masts and rooftops used to transmit mobile phone signals — that tightly bundles proprietary hardware with software provided by the biggest suppliers: Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia.
However open RAN systems allow networks to chop and change those components and use equipment from smaller companies such as Airspan, Altiostar and Mavenir. Groups including Vodafone and Telefónica are experimenting with the approach in settings ranging from very rural areas to densely populated cities, as they grapple with rising data use in the 5G era.
Mr Stonestrom said the UK government’s decision to back open RAN suppliers would disrupt what he dubbed the “Nordic Alliance” of Ericsson and Nokia, who have so far won the lion’s share of large contracts to replace Huawei equipment in the UK.
Britain’s government-backed Shared Rural Network plan to fill in mobile “not-spots” across the country is another chance for Airspan given its experience in connecting remote areas and it is already testing rural 5G technology with one UK network.