Airspan gears up for 5G small cells in aftermath of GLOMO win with Sprint

Airspan Networks is on a tear. The former WiMax vendor is taking a lead role in the “AutoAir” consortium, integrating its small cells into the Reliance Jio Infocomm LTE network in India and preparing for the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) small cell bonanza in the U.S., to name a few activities of late.

It’s also coming off a win at Mobile World Congress 2018, where it took home a GLOMO award for Best Mobile Technology Breakthrough for its Magic Box with Sprint—a product that was so in demand that Sprint had a hard time keeping units on the shelves. GLOMOs are the GSMA’s Global Mobile Awards, which some say are akin to the Oscars for the mobile industry.

“We’re busy,” quipped Damiano Coletti, vice president of strategy and marketing at Airspan. “We’re very much moving on all fronts.”

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Early this year, Sprint reported that Airspan had stepped up production to keep the Magic Box pipeline moving; Sprint by then had deployed more than 80,000 Magic Boxes across the country, and it soon thereafter hit the 100,000 mark. Expectations call for Sprint to deploy more than 1 million Magic Boxes as part of a multiyear roadmap.

The Sprint Magic Box provides average indoor coverage of up to 30,000 square feet, but its signal also extends data coverage to Sprint customers nearby in homes and other businesses. It’s not a simple repeater; it uses dedicated channels and self-organizing network (SON) technology to reduce noise and increase capacity. 

“We’re keeping pace,” Coletti confirmed, noting that its partners include chipset provider Qualcomm and iPhone manufacturer Foxconn, allowing it to scale.

Aside from the Sprint deal, Airspan is working with Tier 1 operators around the world to densify their networks and lay the foundation for 5G. It’s helping them deliver enhanced mobile broadband Gigabit speeds on 4G small cell architectures by leveraging features and platforms like LAA and cloud-based V-RAN—and, Coletti notes, it's doing so without creating the "rat's nest" that so many are trying to avoid in small cell deployments.

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According to Coletti, Airspan is very much ready for the 5G New Radio (5G NR) world, even before 5G officially arrives on the scene.

“5G use cases can be delivered today using 4G if done in an intelligent way,” he told FierceWirelessTech. “Operators don’t really have to wait to deliver 5G functionality and user experiences for the 5G NR ecosystem to become available. They can start now with 4G. It’s an ecosystem thing. Once the ecosystem is ready, it’s just a question of swapping that out.”

The added benefit of doing it on 4G is operators can test the business models and how to monetize them, and they can go through the learning curve in terms of how best to deploy, he said.   

Of course, carriers like Sprint are all about Massive MIMO, and Coletti said all of Airspan’s small cells are aimed at being complementary to macro networks; Massive MIMO support is on the road map.

Airspan is also prepared to support the 3.5 GHz CBRS band in the U.S. when that’s open for business. Right now, the FCC is considering rule changes for the band, but Coletti said the company has been supplying 3.5 GHz small cells for quite some time to customers outside the U.S. that are using 3.5 GHz, so it will be ready.