Cisco backpedals on WiMAX with Starent buy

Analysts claim the networking giant is now placing its bet on LTE

This week's $US2.9 billion acquisition of Starent Networks indicates that Cisco is backpedaling from its WiMAX focus and shifting it to LTE as the 4G underpinning of next generation mobile data networks.

Previous to acquiring Starent, which make gateways to connect multiple radio access networks – Wi-Fi, WiMAX, LTE, 2.5G, 3G, CDMA and UMTS/HSPDA – to an IP packet core, Cisco acquired WiMAX vendor Navini Networks in 2007 and became a key supplier to Clearwire for its mobile WiMAX buildout. But in the interim, big mobile operators AT&T and Verizon -- both Cisco customers – announced plans to adopt LTE instead of mobile WiMAX as their 4G service delivery platforms.

Cisco's LTE product offerings, meanwhile, were limited to a gateway on its 7600 series routers via the Cisco Service and Application Module for IP (SAMI). Cisco also recently outlined a plan to build up its professional services capabilities to support LTE buildouts.

But Starent now gives Cisco a complete mobile packet core offering – one targeted almost specifically at LTE and Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), according to Starent President and CEO Ashraf Dahod, who will now lead Cisco's new Mobile Internet Technology Group, which is essentially Starent inside of Cisco.

"Our goal is to aggressively focus on the UMTS and LTE markets," Dahod said during a conference call on the Cisco acquisition. "That's where the future is; the future is LTE."

Analysts say Cisco is moving with the market.

"Cisco is now placing its bets on LTE, which will be the big 4G winner," says Laurence Swasey, senior analyst at Visant Strategies. "Mobile operators around the world are all in different stages of moving toward LTE. WiMAX was always a dark horse for the mobile world."

Swasey says LTE provides more voice capacity, "better data crunch" and better revenue per subscriber than mobile WiMAX. He says vendors like Cisco put early bets on the technology as a placeholder until the dust settled around which 4G technology would win out.

"A lot of the telecom and computer industry players were initially looking toward WiMAX to be an early savior," Swasey says. "LTE was still [immature]. But LTE makes much better sense. The only question was: When will everyone get on board?"

Mark Lowenstein , managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, echoes those views. "It is becoming clear that WiMAX is not being adopted for large scale deployments, outside Clearwire and a couple of Asia contracts," Lowenstein says. "Most wireless carriers on a 3GPP (WCDMA) or 3GPP2 (CDMA 2000) track are going to LTE. So Cisco wants to play in that sandbox as well, and with Starent it can capitalize."

Starent also allows Cisco to play a broader role in optimizing wireless networks for the 20-fold increase in usage that will be driven by smartphones, netbooks, and a new range of wireless embedded devices, and for new types of usage such as multimedia, Lowenstein says.

In addition to a significant entrée into the $US8.6 billion market for LTE and mobile core infrastructure, Starent broadens Cisco's footprint in 3G mobile networks, according to Catharine Trebnick of Avian Securities in Boston. It also indicates that Cisco's 7600 router with SAMI was not up to the LTE task.

"Our channel checks have indicated Cisco's 7600 didn't have the features required for all-IP LTE networks," Trebnick states in a bulletin on the Starent deal.

Cisco was not immediately available for comment on the future of the 7600/SAMI-based LTE gateway.

But now that Starent fills out its mobile packet core portfolio, the only thing Cisco's missing is radio access network (RAN). Cisco recently said it will rely on third parties to provide that.

Trebnick doesn't think so. "Our industry sources indicate the new division of Cisco may consider adding RAN into the portfolio," she states in her bulletin. "Once Cisco adds the RAN piece it will compete head on with the traditional end-to-end mobile suppliers such as Ericsson, Nokia Siemens Networks, Huawei and Alcatel-Lucent."

As for mobile WiMAX? There will still be a need, but its scope has narrowed and it's apparent Cisco now views it as tactical rather than strategic. The fact that it paid almost 10 times as much for Starent than Navini might underscore that.

"A network may stay on one path, but a gear maker like Cisco should be on several paths to meet the needs of their different customers," says telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan.

"Mobile WiMAX will be a niche player," says Visant's Swasey. "It will be a cheap and easy fix for areas without facilities or infrastructure. And it will be an important footnote in 4G history."

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