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Airspan is in turmoil, but it has a plan

One fed-up board member warned of 'controlled strategic liquidation activities' at Airspan. But an executive familiar with the company's operations denied that characterization and said Airspan is working on a recovery plan.

Mike Dano

January 11, 2024

5 Min Read
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Airspan has lost four board members since November. The company's revenues and share price have cratered. And the company's pivot to private wireless hasn't yet panned out.

But an executive familiar with Airspan's operations said the company, a vendor of wireless network hardware and software, remains on solid financial footing, particularly following a $15 million injection from investment firm Fortress in the fourth quarter of 2023. The executive, who asked to remain anonymous, told Light Reading that the company could reveal a new financial and strategic plan sometime in the first half of 2024.

Airspan is far from where it had hoped to be when it went public in 2021. Company officials believed then that Airspan's embrace of open radio access network (RAN) technology would help convince cable companies, smaller wireless network operators and others to snap up its equipment. That didn't happen.

"Open RAN at the macro level has been slower to develop than some vendors had forecasted, and the nature of the market has changed," analyst Daryl Schoolar of Recon Analytics wrote in response to questions from Light Reading about Airspan's recent problems. "Since 2021 larger and better-established RAN [radio access network] vendors like Samsung Networks, Nokia and even now Ericsson have been pursuing open RAN builds, negatively impacting the opportunities of smaller vendors who thought open RAN was their path toward larger market share."

Others agreed. Stefan Pongratz, an analyst with Dell'Oro Group, explained that some smaller wireless network equipment vendors have chased opportunities like fixed wireless, private wireless and small cells – but none of those sectors have enjoyed much growth.

"Our estimate is that Airspan accounted for less than 0.5% of the 2022 RAN market, and its 1Q23-3Q23 RAN revenues are down rather significantly YoY [year over year], declining at a faster rate than the broader RAN market," Pongratz told Light Reading.

A tough year

Troubles at Airspan first emerged at the beginning of 2023, when the company said its board of directors was exploring "strategic directions." Such jargon often references an interest in mergers, sales, acquisitions or other corporate transactions.

Shortly thereafter, Airspan scored a $25 million loan from Fortress. Concurrently, former Ericsson executive Glenn Laxdal agreed to replace Eric Stonestrom as Airspan's CEO. Stonestrom became Airspan's executive chairman. Airspan also sold its Mimosa fixed wireless business and embarked on an unspecified round of layoffs.

In November, Michael Liebowitz left Airspan's board of directors. Liebowitz was the CEO of New Beginnings Acquisition Corp., the special purpose acquisition company that Airspan used to go public in 2021. Two days later another Airspan board member, Dominique Trempont, left.

"Trempont's resignation was not due to a disagreement with the company on any matter relating to the company's operations, policies or practices," Airspan wrote at the time in an SEC filing.

But then, in December 2023, two more board members left, including Airspan's longtime CEO, Stonestrom, who had held the post since 1998.

"I believe a path to greater shareholder value across all of the classes of stakeholders would have been to agree a pre arranged percentage split of proceeds among the significant classes and then conduct a formal auction with a hard deadline and finite timeline," Stonestrom wrote in his resignation letter.

In his own departure letter two days later, board member Bandel Carano offered an even more dire assessment: "I simply am unable to remain a director due to extreme asymmetry of critical information disclosure to directors especially as it pertains to Fortress controlled strategic liquidation activities. Thank you and best of luck."

The executive familiar with Airspan's operations who spoke with Light Reading on the condition of anonymity denied that the company is in "controlled strategic liquidation activities."

The trouble with being small

Airspan has a long and storied history in the US wireless industry. It worked for years to sell 4G equipment to a handful of mobile network operators looking for innovative ways to densify their networks.

Perhaps Airspan's most noteworthy claim to fame in that arena was its work with Sprint prior to T-Mobile's acquisition of the operator in 2020. After Sprint's parent SoftBank decided to pull back on an expensive network buildout plan, Sprint turned to Airspan's Magic Box to improve its network coverage and capacity. According to Stonestrom, Sprint ultimately deployed 300,000 Magic Boxes at the cost of around $400 million – an effort he said resulted in a network that would have cost ten times as much if Sprint had used equipment from traditional suppliers like Nokia and Ericsson.

Today, Airspan's customers include Gogo and Charter Communications in the US, Reliance Jio in India, and Rakuten in Japan. But Airspan's third quarter 2023 revenues clocked in at just $14 million – that's down from the $39 million the company reported during the same period in 2021 after its initial pubic offering.

As a result, Airspan is following vendors such as Ericsson, Amazon and Globalstar into the private wireless networking industry. According to the Airspan executive, the company has managed to score a large number of private wireless networking tests and pilots. One example is Airspan's November 2023 announcement of a 5G millimeter wave network for Australia's Prospecta Utilities.

But most of those private networking pilots haven't matured into actual deployments. 

To be clear, Airspan isn't the only company caught flat-footed by the slow-to-develop market for private wireless networking. Moreover, it's not the only wireless equipment vendor to report sluggish demand in recent months.

But Airspan also doesn't have much padding while it waits for things to improve.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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