Startup Movandi scores more funding to boost mmWave 5G

Irvine-based startup Movandi recently closed $27 million in C series funding and aims to help expedite 5G rollouts with its millimeter wave technology that promises to extend coverage and reduce deployment costs for operators.

While the coronavirus pandemic has created an environment of economic uncertainty, the timing of funding aligns well with what carriers are doing, Craig Ochikubo, Movandi’s SVP of Business Development and Marketing, told FierceWireless.  

Verizon and AT&T each recently reaffirmed respective commitments to 5G rollouts, with Verizon upping its network capex guidance by $500 million for 2020. Both also spent billions at the FCC’s latest mmWave spectrum auction earlier this year.

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“That gives us and also our investors confidence that we’re in the right place at the right time with our solutions,” Ochikubo said.

The latest round was led by venture partner WRVI Capital, along with Cota Capital, and new investor DNX. Founded in 2016, to date Movandi has raised $66.7 million.

Movandi co-founder and COO Maryam Rofougaran, a former Broadcom SVP, said that if anything, the COVID-19 situation has emphasized why faster and more robust broadband is needed and that 5G needs to happen sooner than later.

“Our solution primarily is focused on addressing not only the challenges [operators] have with millimeter wave, with penetration, blockage, and everything, but also give them the ability to do this faster, in a way that it also helps with their mmWave capex and opex going forward,” Rofougaran said.   

Movandi’s 5G mmWave solutions include 5G BeamXR active routers/repeaters and BeamX RF front-end for fixed wireless CPE, mobile devices, small cells, and Open Radio Access Networks (ORAN) radio units (RU).

Movandi’s BeamXR has already gone through numerous trials and is very close to shipping, according to Rofougaran. With the latest funding Movandi will ramp development and production of its active router/repeater platform to support the inventory buildup needed to go to market with some of the operators the startup’s been working with.

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Movandi hasn’t formally announced any partnerships with U.S. operators yet, but hinted they align with those aggressively deploying mmWave. In the U.S., Verizon has led the charge on mmWave, though AT&T also offers its 5G+ mmWave service and T-Mobile has had limited high-band rollouts.

While there are others, like Pivotal Commware and CommScope, that  compete in the mmWave repeater space, Joe Madden, chief analyst at Mobile Experts, said what’s impressive about Movandi is how quickly it has moved. He noted that in a short timeframe Movandi’s raised money and developed a high-performance design. In many ways, Movandi is even outperforming giants like Qualcomm in terms of RF amplifier efficiency, Madden said.

Not your mom’s repeater

Repeaters, which at a basic level take capacity from one location and help spread it across to a bigger area (Madden likened it to spreading peanut butter over a bigger piece of bread), have been around through 2G, 3G, and 4G, but got somewhat of a bad rap.

“Repeater you could say is a four-letter word in our industry,” Madden said, explaining that in earlier generations there wasn’t as much capacity to be spread as with millimeter wave, so the product was only useful for a very short time before it started creating more problems than it solved.

That turned many operators off the of technology. With short-range millimeter wave signals though, coverage is the issue, not capacity. The increased bandwidth and limited area make millimeter wave repeaters a more economically feasible idea, as opposed to putting up additional base stations 50 or 20 meters apart to cover every inch of an urban canyon, he said.  

“Previous generations of 2G, 3G, and 4G repeaters failed because the growth of data demand quickly required the operator to move to small cells for additional capacity. However, in the case of 5G mm-wave, capacity will not be an issue for an extended period of time. The new challenge for 5G mm-wave is to spread the capacity into the right places. In this way, 5G mm-wave repeaters will be fundamentally different than previous generations,” Madden wrote in a recent Mobile Experts report.

Rofougaran too shied away from the term repeater, saying Movandi’s technology is not exactly the same as 4G repeaters, and it addresses fundamental mmWave challenges like penetration. The products can also be programmed for different functions, whether that's amplifying the signal, spreading it wider, or even narrowing it to conform to the specific need.

“It’s a lot more powerful than anything you see, and on top of it is also a low-cost affordable solution,” she said.

Cost savings from eliminating fiber backhaul

Since 5G high-band millimeter wave signals can’t travel far and are easily blocked, rollouts have seen limited service availability and economic challenges of scaling small cell deployments for widespread coverage.

Movandi’s repeater solutions eliminate the need for fiber backhaul, which is one of the biggest costs associated with deployments of small cell networks.

“That’s really the key,” Madden said. “If you don’t need to pull fiber to another streetlight, it can get you up and running a lot faster and save you a lot of money.”

Ochikubo said “it was a little bit of a shock” a few years ago when the number of small cells needed for 5G deployments was added up.

Industry group CTIA in 2018 had said wireless providers would need to deploy roughly 800,000 small cells over the next few years to build out 5G networks.

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To achieve LTE-type cell like coverage with millimeter wave 5G, Ochikubo said the company believes it can help deliver something on the order of a 75% reduction in capex, along with a considerable reduction in opex compared to fiber-fed small cells.

“It’s a very significant shift from an economic perspective,” he added.  

For outdoor environments, the repeater technology could be mounted on a telephone pole or streetlight to address blind spots and or areas shadowed by other cells. This enables operators to expand the footprint of a particular base station and attach a lot more users to aggregate more volume and more traffic on one node.  

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While the actual cost of a equipment for a base station versus a repeater may be very similar, Madden said when calculating network costs, the need to lay down fiber for small cells becomes “a giant hassle and a huge expense,” particularly in a city environment that requires shutting down streets, along with crews, permitting and timing.

In addition to eliminating backhaul, Movandi can design its technology for various levels of power and coverage depending on the type of installation.“It could be a very small user-installable box, up to a larger network type of system that [operators] would used as a tool in their network deployment,” Ochikubo said.