Summary:

What happens when infrastructure startups disappear? Innovation doesn’t stop, but the industry definitely loses a critical font of ideas that challenge the big vendor mentality and established standards. Services innovation is already outpacing network innovation — the problem is only going to get worse.

While we often think of small nimble startups as the true innovators in technology, that hasn’t necessarily been the case in network infrastructure for the last few years. A study of venture capital funding from Ovum shows that while overall tech investment has recovered since the dark days of the recession, the vast majority of that spending went to services and applications startups like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Spotify.

Meanwhile, the startup companies that make the gear over which those services traverse have seen investment fall from $796 million in 2009 annually to just $270 million in the 12 months ending in June, Ovum found. According to Ovum principal analyst Matt Walker:

“A funding disconnect has thereby emerged between network builders and network users. Lots of innovation and venture capital is targeting the network users, such as mobile apps and OTT platforms. However, little of it is directly helping the network builders. With a weak start-up pipeline, the industry relies more on incumbent vendors to generate new ideas and products. Their budgets are bigger, but VCs are often better at funding ‘game changing’ ideas ignored by established vendors.”

Admittedly, investing in the next big social network or an app that could generate millions of downloads is a lot sexier than, say, envelope tracking technology or cell site radio frequency filters. But those infrastructure innovations are just as important. The capabilities of many apps and services have already far exceeded the ability of our mobile networks to deliver those apps and services at a reasonable cost (think Netflix on 4G tablet). If we let network innovation slip, we could wind up with a bunch of very powerful services that have nowhere to go.

As Walker points out, the onus for innovation thus falls on the big established telecom vendors, and it’s quite the burden. Ovum estimates that with the falloff in startup investment, big network infrastructure makers’ R&D budgets are now 90 times larger than the investment going into networking startups –- that’s up from 30X two years ago.

Nokia Siemens Networks’ conception of a heterogeneous network

Don’t get me wrong — the Ciscos, Ericssons and Huaweis of the world are responsible for some amazing science and innovation. And today they’re building the small cell and heterogeneous networks of the future. But there are limits to what the big vendors can accomplish. The R&D budgets of the big industrial labs have shrunk immensely in the last two decades, and there’s only so much talent and so many resources those vendors can devote to innovation.  The biggest issue, though, is that the big equipment makers innovate in much different ways than small startups.

Big vendors have big ingrained investments

Look around. A lot of the wired and wireline networks we use on a daily basis have been with us for a while. The first 2G networks in the US went up in the late 1990s and they’re largely still in use. A good part of the big vendors’ businesses is maintaining, upgrading and iterating on the networks they’ve already built.

The lightRadio Cube, Alcatel-Lucent’s vision for the small cell.

That doesn’t mean the big vendors are merely redesigning the same old equipment, but they’re definitely looking for continuity with their older networks. Alcatel-Lucent’s lightRadio and Nokia Siemens’ Liquid Radio architectures, for instance, are truly mind-blowing approaches to the new heterogeneous network, but they’re still fundamentally the cellular technologies that have been these vendors’ bread and butter since the birth of wireless.

When Wi-Fi came along as a mobile data alternative to cellular, these vendors were resistant if not outright hostile. It took two startups, BelAir Networks and Ruckus Wireless to make the business case to carriers for large-scale outdoor Wi-Fi networks to supplement 3G and 4G networks.

The big vendors are working largely within global standards frameworks. That’s by no means a bad thing. It’s why an iPhone can communicate with a Nokia-built base station, and a Cisco router can be plugged into an Ericsson core network. But standards work is painfully slow. A lot of the innovation work in networking technology works goes on outside of the standards bodies, and if that work proves successful it wind up shaping the standards themselves.

There’s probably no better example in wireless than CDMA. Qualcomm’s upstart cellular interface was initially adopted by a single US carrier, AirTouch, but it eventually became the basis for all global 3G networks.

Innovating between the lines

While the big vendors have focused on the overarching evolution of networks it’s up to infrastructure core technology startups to fill in technology gaps. Companies like NSN and Ericsson will most certainly handle the large-scale rollout of small cells and hetnets in the future, just like Apple and Samsung will be designing our future 4G smartphones and connected tablets.

But it will be startups like Seattle’s still under-the-radar PivotBeam that are developing the critical software defined antennas that will link these millions of small cells back to the network core. And it will be small engineering companies like Nujira and Quantance supplying the power envelope tracking technology giving those 4G phones a tolerable battery life.

I’m not saying all of these specific companies are all going to be the next Qualcomm, and that you should go invest in them. But they’re part of a critical network infrastructure startup scene, and that scene appears to be shrinking. We’re already starting to see the consequences. The industry has started delivering speed in the form of LTE but it has so far failed to deliver us the cheap capacity critical to moving the mobile industry forward. If the investors keep neglecting network startups, that problem is only going to get worse.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Mati Nitibhon

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