MWC, the former Mobile World Congress, doesn’t get going until next week, but there has already been some interesting news in the red-hot topic of private cellular.
Late Thursday night, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. announced it’s acquiring the private cellular network provider Athonet for an undisclosed amount. The Vicenza, Italy-based company was founded in 2005 and offers a Citizens Broadband Radio Service-based mobile packet core, SIM cards and radios to set up and deploy a private cellular network quickly and easily.
With this move, HPE becomes the first mainstream network provider to own its own private wireless portfolio. Currently, it goes to market via a partnership with Celona Inc. I asked HPE about what this means for the Celona partnership and was told the company will continue to support existing customers and will look at opportunities, where it makes sense.
Although Athonet and Celona are both private 5G, or P5G, providers, they do go to market differently. Celona’s “5G in a box” is a full, turnkey solution that deploys and is managed like enterprise Wi-Fi, whereas Athonet’s strength is the mobile core and was designed for carriers and requires some integration work with orchestration tool and other components.
In addition to P5G, Athonet also offers a carrier-graded, 4G evolved packet core and has an IMS business comprised of native voice and video services for LTE and 5G endpoints. HPE is best known as an enterprise company, but it does have a service provider business and Athonet can bring capabilities to both.
Over the past few years, there has certainly been a tremendous amount of hype around private 5G. Although some industry watchers have predicted that P5G would eventually cannibalize Wi-Fi, I don’t believe that to be the case. The latter has the benefit of being easier to operate, is significantly cheaper to run, has reached near ubiquity and there are orders of magnitude more Wi-Fi enabled devices than cellular. The reality is, Wi-Fi is fine for many use cases, particularly in traditional office environments.
P5G is ideally suited for use cases where connectivity is crucial to business operations. Assembly lines, warehouses, robots, industrial “internet of things” and mining operations all require the utmost in reliability to function. Any downtime at all can cost the organizations significant amounts of money, making the premium for private cellular worth it.
Even though the use cases are different, where HPE can create a “1+1=3” scenario with the acquisition is to unify the management and security of the two networks. I do not think we will see converged access points because the dispersion pattern and reach of Wi-Fi and cellular radios are quite different. 5G access points have a much broader coverage area, so it takes only a fraction of the radios when compared with Wi-Fi.
What does make sense is to unify policies and management in a single place. In this case, HPE will look to integrate Athonet into its Aruba Central network management portal. This will let administrators create access policies or update common configurations from a single location and propagate it across both networks simultaneously. Also, Aruba Central has AI-enabled insights, security capabilities and workflow automation which can be applied to Athonet as well, further improving operations.
As one would expect, in its press release HPE stated the plan is to offer Athonet P5G as part of the HPE GreenLake “edge to cloud” platform where customers can purchase its wired network, Wi-Fi and private cellular via a monthly subscription model with no capital expenditure. This can help de-risk the deployment of P5G and let companies try the service, see what works and expand the network once the business case has been made.
It’s fair to say that the marketing around P5G has outpaced deployments, but that should have been expected because it’s hard for information technology pros to understand what’s possible until they see it in action. More emerging use cases will help trigger ideas and innovation and create a “rising tide” for the technology. This is a good move for HPE: It gets into the market early and, through GreenLake, can stimulate adoption.