Athena Wireless sees role for its small cells in FirstNet blueprint

WESTMINSTER, Colo.--Small cells failed to take off in the commercial cellular arena as quickly or on as grand a scale as expected, but other sectors are starting to consider how they might employ the diminutive base stations. Athena Wireless Communications, for example, is targeting public safety and the military for its small cell products.

Sales of small cells for tactical communications "may not be in the volumes that the industry wanted," but they could be key to saving lives, said Juan Santiago, Athena's vice president of business development. Santiago spoke to FierceWirelessTech here on the sidelines of the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) program's Public Safety Broadband Stakeholder meeting.

Initially a supplier of millimeter-wave backhaul products, Athena in May 2013 unveiled its Pixie LTE small cell, which is available with integrated millimeter-wave backhaul using either the 60 GHz or 80 GHz spectrum band. Athena is an ODM supplier to OEMs, so it offers the Pixie in a 6"x6" indoor ceiling-mount package, a rugged 8"x8" outdoor case with the optional integrated backhaul or a 5.4"x5.4"x1.5" PCB assembly for integration into OEM products and solutions.

Two months ago, Athena announced it was adding support for First Network Responder Authority (FirstNet) 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum to the Pixie. FirstNet is charged with designing, building and maintaining the LTE-based national public safety broadband network (NPSBN).

Athena is currently seeking a partner, such as a larger vendor or systems integrator, to distribute its technology into the public-safety market.

Santiago noted Athena's small cells could be used in place of, or to supplement, cell sites on wheels (COWS), which are often deployed to bring cellular service back up after natural disasters.

Athena's small cell technology has been part of a six-month tactical-communications trial in Afghanistan, where the military worked with a systems integrator to deploy LTE small cells in 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum, which is also used by AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) in the United States, rather than using Wi-Fi, which has range limitations due to the high-band 2.4 and 5 GHz frequencies it uses. Using LTE also enables the military to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, such as LTE smartphones, which the troops already know how to operate since they use the same devices in their civilian lives, Santiago said.

Military drones are also being outfitted with Athena's technology. Because drones can easily fly out of range of a wireless network, Athena has created small cells that also run their own evolved packet core.

Phoenix-based Athena is self-funded and has about 30 employees. Last month, Daniel Scharre joined the firm as chief strategy officer. Scharre was formerly executive vice president of products at Symmetricom and earlier served as CEO of Calient Networks.

Athena is far from the only one pitching its small cells for use by first responders. Last summer, for instance, PureWave Networks deployed a Band Class 14 LTE test network in Silicon Valley to demonstrate small cell performance in various deployment scenarios deemed critical to public-safety networks.

For more:
- see this Athena release

Related articles:
FirstNet vexed by shifts in public-safety LTE standards-setting
FirstNet putting together two key network RFPs, solicits possible board members
PureWave making a case for using LTE small cells in public safety