Orange-Backed Athonet Aims to Be Core Rival to Ericsson, Nokia

A startup backed by Orange and Facebook could pose a threat to Ericsson and Nokia in the mobile core.

Iain Morris, International Editor

June 20, 2017

7 Min Read
Orange-Backed Athonet Aims to Be Core Rival to Ericsson, Nokia

Most startups at tradeshows hold their meetings in the coffee lounge, or squeeze themselves into white boxes (of the cubicle variety, not the server one) around the edge of the show floor.

Not Athonet. At last week's 5G World event in London, the Italian software company's stand was on the scale you expect from a more recognizable vendor. That physical presence seemed evidence of Athonet's growing status in the virtualized mobile core. But if Athonet can overcome its next big challenge, and prove that its technology can also acquire the scale associated with its larger rivals, its name is likely to become a lot more familiar throughout the industry.

The holy grail would be a deal that sees 35-person Athonet replace the likes of Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) or Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) in a wide-area telco network. Several years ago, that would have seemed as fantastical as the idea of the original Holy Grail. But it is not so farfetched today. Earlier this month, Athonet became one of four startups that Facebook and French telco Orange (NYSE: FTE) began supporting as part of a new initiative aimed at spurring network innovation. If the startup technologies can "scale up," says Orange, they could conceivably replace the mainstream network vendors in future. (See Startup Could Replace Ericsson, Says Orange.)

It's a challenge that CEO Karim El Malki is confident the company can address. "We can be very competitive against all of the big players in the market and have already been looking at scaling up for a long time," he tells Light Reading. "It is more about trust -- nobody ever got sacked as a result of buying from Ericsson or Nokia."

Figure 1: Core Blimey! Karim El Malki, Athonet's CEO, says his business has doubled in size in each of the last three years. Karim El Malki, Athonet's CEO, says his business has doubled in size in each of the last three years.

If such cultural considerations represent the main barrier to progress, then telco departments like sales and finance will have to be convinced that Athonet works from a business as well as a technology perspective. Paying for network products on a recurring, "on-demand" basis allows companies to start small and expand later, but it represents a radical departure for many finance executives, acknowledges El Malki. "In financial terms, capital expenditure is sometimes better because it doesn't hit EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortization]," he says.

Orange, though, is deadly serious about shaking up the supplier market. And it is not the only Tier 1 operator to have recently flagged its interest in Athonet's software. Just this month, UK incumbent BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) showed off trials of a "pre-standard 5G" service that made use of Athonet's virtualized core.

El Malki's confidence about the scalability of Athonet's technology seems unlikely to be misplaced, either. As he points out, for a company still being classed as a startup, Athonet already looks quite old. Launched about 12 years ago, it claims to have been one of the pioneers of virtualization in the mobile network core. Developed entirely in-house from the "ground up," its software is said to be capable of running all core functions on standard, off-the-shelf servers. As far back as 2010, in collaboration with Finland's Nokia and Hong Kong's Hutchison, it built a virtualized core running on enterprise servers in a 3G network.

Its low-profile longevity does not mean Athonet has been messing around ever since. In recent years, it has naturally focused on opportunities where scaling down, rather than up, has been the priority. That is something the traditional vendors have struggled to do, says El Malki, and Nokia continues to license Athonet's technology in these scenarios. Commercial customers include Italian energy utility Enel, which is using Athonet in a dedicated 4G network serving one of its power plants, and the Finnish government, which has public safety systems that rely on Athonet's technology. "We can adapt to the different virtualization environments of our customers, whether OpenStack or VMware," says El Malki.

Next page: On the up

On the up
As a privately owned business, Athonet does not report details of its earnings, but its revenues have doubled in each of the last three years, says El Malki, and employee numbers are also on the up. Growth appears to have been largely self-funded, but that could change: Orange and four of its four venture capitalist partners have promised to make €100 million ($111 million) available for investment in network startups over the next three years. "Funding is always important, although the critical thing is really to prove this on a wider scale," says El Malki. (See Orange, VCs Commit $113M to Network Startups as 'Black Box' Frustration Mounts.)

It may be a fortuitous time to be doing that as operators start to think about 5G, the architectural overhaul it entails and their non-consumer business. In particular, El Malki believes Athonet's technology could figure prominently in deployments of edge computing, where IT resources are moved out of centralized facilities, and closer to the end-user devices, to support lower latency services. "You can push the user plane [which carries network user traffic] out to the edge and centralize other bits of the core," he says. "You could share an LTE base station between a standard, all-you-can-eat service and the sliced edge." (See The Growing Pains of 5G and ETSI Gets Edgy About Mobile.)

For all the latest news from the wireless networking and services sector, check out our dedicated Mobile content channel here on Light Reading.

Athonet is already demonstrating the attractions of this approach during trials of autonomous car technologies in Spain. It has been showing up in 5G trials in other parts of Europe, too. "We are getting involved with big players whereas in the past we were considered too small," says El Malki.

As it has already done with Enel and the Finnish government, Athonet is also keen to support organizations from outside the telecom sector that are deploying their own telecom networks. The release of 3.5GHz spectrum in the US under the so-called CBRS (citizens broadband radio service) plan could lead to business opportunities in new vertical markets, as healthcare providers, utilities and enterprise giants start to build their own private 4G systems. In this area, Athonet could stand to benefit from its long-standing partnership with Nokia, which is also looking outside the telecom sector to a range of adjacent vertical markets for sales growth over the next five years. (See Nokia to Create Standalone Software Biz, Target New Verticals.)

Backed by Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) and Nokia, the MultiFire technology designed to support 4G deployments in unlicensed spectrum bands is a further source of interest for Athonet. In September, it will host a meeting of the MultiFire Alliance, the association that has grown up around the technology, in Rome. "A whole new market is being created with a new range of players," says El Malki. "The big telcos could see this as something that is disruptive but also as something they can turn to their advantage -- as a federation of networks they can link together."

Much seems to ride on the new partnership with Orange and Facebook, though. Athonet is already held in high regard by some of the world's biggest telcos and equipment suppliers. But if it can prove that its technologies work on a much grander scale, it will give the operators a valuable alternative to their mainstream suppliers -- and the vendors another headache.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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