In this Q&A with TMN, Brown looks back on the development of Axell over the past years, the current state of the DAS and indoor coverage market – and future opportunities in wireless.
I’m not a corporate guy, I’ve spent my life developing and running medium-sized tech businesses. A company with 12,000 employees has that sort of corporate nature I’m not best suited to. But obviously when one company gets acquired by another the size of Cobham it needs to be integrated so it can fully represent itself as part of the Group. So I agreed to help with integration and achieve certain milestones and then depart. We’ve reached that stage.
Take us back to the start of Axell, and the history of the company to the present day. (Note – Brown took over as CEO when the company was formed via a 2007 management buy-in of UK company Aerial Facilities, and the subsequent acquisition of Avitec in Sweden)
It has been a very interesting journey. A bunch of investors bought a sleepy RF kind of business in early 2007, which provided coverage and some DAS solutions, and a bunch of other things. Our intention was to focus in on coverage and DAS. Then eight months later we bought Avitec, and merged together as Axell. The following year  we bought [Israel and US-based] Dekolink Wireless – so there’s always been an interesting blend of cultures in the company. I’m proud that we have 16 different nationalities in the company, and we do not run silo [national] offices. Everything is completely integrated, so we may have an Israeli on a team led by a Swede with a Brit in support. I think creating that culture has been one of our critical success factors.
That’s reflected in our sales – in 2007 80-85% of our business was from the UK and now it’s the opposite. We have sold to 150 countries and done some of the biggest and most prestigious projects in the world: the Pentagon, London Olympics, Eurotunnel, Burj Khalifa.
At heart the reason we have been able to be so successful is we brought to market a range of innovative and interesting technology and achieved a number of industry firsts. The bedrock has been the SDR (Software Designed Radio) digital development programme which we had got cracking on pretty early in 2007 and rolled out in different generations of products. That enabled us to achieve the first digital off-air public safety system, and be the first with a digital range of off-air repeaters for coverage in small and medium sized offices with our DIGIMini brand. Then our digital filtering technology is at the heart of idDAS [intelligent digital DAS] that we launched in Barcelona [Mobile World Congress 2014] where we are grabbing pieces of spectrum and dynamically allocating and steering based on capacity needs.
So our approach to R&D has been quite entrepreneurial. Some companies cover R&D in huge process and documentation – we don’t. Our approach to developing is to get a bunch of experts and debate something to death and conclude if can make it work. And if we do then we go for it and empower teams to get on with it. There’s no huge risk analysis process. I think we been very responsive to customer needs. We have acted more rapidly and in DAS and coverage people tend to be in a hurry.
So here today Axell Wireless is the European market leader, and a global market leader in public safety coverage. We’ve grown revenues from £15 million in 2008 to approaching £60 million today.
How do you see the future for the Axell business within Cobham?
Axell has got a very capable team and within Cobham I can’t see the future looking anything but positive: there are complementary technologies and greater synergies to achieve from some other wireless elements of Cobham.
There’s a lot of movement in the market now with active DAS solutions and dynamic DAS architectures. Commscope has introduced a multiband active solution, we see the likes of Huawei’s Lampsite and Ericsson’s Radio Dot as DAS-like coverage solutions for large buildings, and there are newcomers like Dali Wireless on the scene. Where do you think this market is heading?
I think the future for DAS is very positive and strong. DAS provides true multi-operator, multi-vendor support, where other solutions are really single operator solutions. Most of the owners of enterprise facilities, stadiums, shopping centres and airports do not want three different systems. Putting them in is disruptive, so if you have that requirement for multi-tech, multi-operator, and public safety as well, then DAS really plays very well in that space.
If you are a customer of an operator and have got a large office and don’t have very many visitors then having a single operator network may work. But for big enterprise buildings, and there’s a lot of them, DAS the only practical solution.
One area that I think is interesting is that we will see greater integration between DAS and WiFi. You have the IP world of the classic WiFi vendors – Cisco, Ruckus etc – and DAS from the radio world. Those two worlds are going to converge.
So what area of the wireless business interests you now?
I do intend to do something else in wireless where there are a lot of new opportunities around; I’ve mentioned integration of WiFi and DAS and that’s interesting to me personally and may well be something I look at in the future. SON (Self Optimising Networks) is a huge market. But I love wireless and it’s still in its early stages, with IoT and 5G there’s a huge amount of innovation happening and lots of opportunities for new technology to make a significant contribution.
Do you see yourself as an investor? Would you be looking for investment opportunities?
Axell is the second company that I have created, developed and sold, and yes would I make an investment in another business. I’m currently chair of a cloud services business, helping that management team – would I do similar things with other wireless companies? You bet. In all the ventures I’ve done I have worked with private equity investors – and they know me so we are likely to team up on some other opportunities.