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Airwaive wants to be an Airbnb for wireless network equipment

A Silicon Valley startup founded by Jeff Yee, a former AT&T and ZTE executive, is hoping to solve one of the big dilemmas facing operators building 5G networks – how to rapidly deploy enough small cells to provide ubiquitous 5G coverage in a given area.

Small cells aren't a new phenomenon. Most operators have deployed small cells throughout their 4G networks to patch coverage gaps and improve network capacity. These small cells are typically mounted on light poles or rooftops. But some in the industry expect demand for additional small cells to significantly increase in the coming years, particularly as operators look to broadcast 5G in shortrage, millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum.

Enter Airwaive. Executives at the startup hope to speed up a small cell deployment process they believe is far too cumbersome and slow.

Streamlining the process

Today, operators typically first work with a municipality to obtain the necessary permits for a small cell, and then they work with property owners in areas where they need to install a small cell. Airwaive executives say this existing process is not manageable when an operator has to deploy hundreds of thousands, or millions, of small cells. And if the process isn't changed, it will take many years for 5G to achieve the type of coverage operators are promising.

Instead, Airwaive has developed what it calls an "owner-operator" model that it thinks will remove some of these barriers. The company is building a network of potential small cell hosts (either residential or business buildings). Airwaive will then make sure the small cell gets deployed – by either an engineering services firm or by the building owners themselves – and it will compensate the host every month for providing a home for the small cell.

"Airwaive is like an Airbnb platform," said Jeff Yee, CEO of Airwaive. "We are applying some of that disruption to the wireless industry."

Yee said that Airwaive has already identified a number of potential 5G small cell host properties by finding places that have fiber connections. Fiber is important because the 5G small cells will need backhaul. "We are focusing on fiber-ready endpoints," he said, adding that the company already has a database of 400,000 potential properties and has secured the rights to about 10,000 of those properties.

Airwaive won't provide the small cell equipment; that will be handled by Airwaive's operator clients. Instead, the company will act like a marketplace to connect small cell hosts with network operators and equipment installers, and it will ensure those hosts get compensated.

"Our goal is not to be in the network deployment business," Yee said. "We want to bring carriers together with property owners and compensate accordingly."

Primed with a cable client

Yee said the company hopes to find additional hosts by doing social media advertising in a targeted geography. He believes that most potential hosts will be receptive to the offer because they will be paid a monthly rental fee without having to do much other than provide a fiber connection and power. The typical fee for hosting a 5G small cell could be around $500 a month, Yee estimates. And it's possible that a host might receive multiple payments if it is hosting equipment from more than one operator, whether that's a fixed wireless Internet provider, a municipality or some other entity.

Indeed, Airwaive already has one client, a cable operator, and it plans to launch services this summer in two cities. Yee didn't identify the client, nor would he name the specific cities. Yee said Airwaive is also talking to several wireless operators, both in the US and overseas.

"We want to stay close to home first to get everything worked out," he said.

The company has caught the attention of Glenn Lurie, a wireless industry veteran and former president and CEO of AT&T's Mobility and Consumer business. Lurie, who is on Airwaive's advisory board, said that he doesn't see the standard small cell deployment process as being viable with 5G. "Cities aren't going to allow all three carriers to put up sites separately," he said. "There has to be a more efficient process."

Lurie added that what Airwaive is doing is unique because it has developed a way for carriers to be more efficient and get sites deployed more quickly. "This is a nice tool for operators to figure out who is willing to host a small cell and who is not. This allows them to move faster," he said. "I think this concept makes a lot of sense."

— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.

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