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Soft to the core

Athonet is on a mission to further extend its reach into the smart city space. Melony Rocque speaks to its director of business development, Nanda Menon 

Menon: the challenge is translating a 'wow factor' pilot into citywide deployment
Menon: the challenge is translating a 'wow factor' pilot into citywide deployment

Once a smart city pilot has wowed, how do you successfully translate the citywide deployment?

Athonet tries to overcome the communication issues that arise in a smart city scale-up

For many towns and cities around the world, fibre-based braodband is prohibitively expensive

Soft to the core


When you’ve wowed with your smart cities pilot study and you’re looking at next stage upscale deployment, who you going to call? Nanda Menon, director, corporate development at Italian mobile network specialist, Athonet, really hopes it’ll be his connectivity busting team.


Athonet arrived in the UK a couple of months ago with a mission to further extend its reach into the smart city space. “We think the UK is a very innovative economy in terms of what it is doing with smart cities but also what it is doing with connected cars. It is also the leading VC/tech centre of Europe, so it is a good place to seed,” said Menon, speaking exclusively to SCW.


So what is it that Athonet does that will make UK cities (or any city for that matter) want to make that call? Ubiquitous connectivity would be the short answer, thanks to its complete software-based mobile packet core solution (EPC/PC) that can be deployed in fully virtualised environments (NFV), enterprise data centres or on standard off-the-shelf servers to facilitate the latest generation of mobile broadband services.


This software-based approach to networking has won the company a number of plaudits. In June this year, Athonet, VMware and Cloudify won the Best of Show Award at the Tokyo Interop event for the demonstration of the fastest and simplest cloud-based deployment of a virtualised LTE mobile packet core and VoLTE service.


In February the company won the ‘Best Solution for Growing Smaller or Independent Networks category’ at the Global Mobile Awards 2016 with judges commenting: “This solution allows networks to be deployed where it would previously not have been possible for a small or independent operator. The simplicity of a software-based solution running off the shelf hardware allows networks to be rolled out rapidly to facilitate the latest generation of mobile broadband services.”


Last autumn, Athonet founder and CEO Karim El Malki was voted one of WIRED’s 17 ‘Global influencers expanding human possibility through technology’ for deploying its low-cost, portable broadband-in-a-box to everywhere from disaster zones to African wildlife parks.


Athonet comes to the rescue

Athonet’s mobile software core was conceived from the ground up in 2005 and saw its first deployment in 2010, making it one of the first virtual mobile core deployments in the world.


In May 2012, this technology came into its own after two major earthquakes struck in northern Italy causing widespread chaos and homelessness, as well as overloading and damaging fixed and mobile networks. Within hours, Italian Civil Protection had deployed an Athonet network, utilising it for real-time fixed video surveillance, wearable mobile video and voice communications to/from field emergency personnel as well as providing free wi-fi access for civilians. The company was awarded a Presidential Medal for its contribution during this critical time.


Historically, the company has focused on safety, defence and latterly smart grids. One of its customers is Enel, the Italian multinational manufacturer and distributor of electricity and gas. With 30 million smart meters in operational use, Athonet provides networks for all the aggregation points.


“We are managing very low latency across the electrical grid itself where you’ve got the need to sort out the balance of loads between substations. We are also providing efficient communications on national scale for smart meters, so a city scale solution is a natural evolution for us,” says Menon.


In 2014 the company deployed a voice, video and data mobile LTE smart city network solution in Brazil, and sees a key role for its technology at the point where smart city projects upscale into widespread deployment.


“The big challenge that we see for smart cities is that once they’ve done the pilot that produces the wow factor, how do they translate that into citywide deployment? That’s the biggest challenge and one of the biggest challenges in that is the connectivity,” says Menon.


Ubiquitous connectivity

Menon sees that there are a number of communications issues in the smart city scale-up, and it is here that Athonet’s solutions can come to the fore.


“That’s the problem that we address,” says Menon, “giving the ubiquitous connectivity that allows a smart city to function, to send all the signalling and communications rapidly back and forth in order to take the right actions. The applications – whether it’s a smart garbage truck or whether it’s a little pod that’s moving around town for logistics delivery, you need connectivity for all of that, and that’s the biggest challenge you have when you scale up.”


Menon points out that health services, such as heart rate monitoring, where citizens are constantly moving from location to location, you need the kind of connectivity that can cope with all aspects of mobility.


So what exactly are these city communication challenges that Athonet has identified?


For starters, when it comes to fixed ubiquitous connectivity, fibre-based broadband is the ideal. However, for many towns and cities the deployment of this is prohibitively expensive requiring substantial infrastructure build, and the laying of it can cause a great deal of disruption. Further, a smart city is in constant movement making mobile wireless communications mandatory.


Ubiquitous connectivity needs to ensure redundancy and resilience in emergencies, backhaul failure or other situations. It should be able to prioritise traffic for emergency or time-sensitive data.


Menon also points out that wi-fi and conventional cellular cannot provide the high SLAs for very low latency, reliability and high security for mission-critical and industrial automation applications.


Athonet Primo, the company’s LTE smart city and smart grid platform addresses these issues. According to Menon this software platform can leapfrog the cost and limitations of wi-fi and RF mesh permitting for ubiquitous deployment. It is a highly distributed system. Maximising control and minimising latency, it can be deployed instantly using standard IT servers.


“What we have is a mobile core network that can be deployed anywhere in the world. It can be deployed either manually or remotely either by clicking by a few clicks to create a bubble of 4G LTE coverage,” he says.


Network-in-a-Box deployment

Athonet can deploy a portable Network in a Box (NIB) solution for instant deployment. The same software can be utilised more elaborately – deploying a number of these small software units across the city where they can communicate with one another to create widespread full city coverage.


“If you’re working with mobility and you are working with the elderly, you want very low latency,” says Menon. “If someone has a heart attack you want the signal to go back as quick as possible, you want to make sure that that piece of information goes back to the hospital and doctor without being dropped, so you don’t want to put that over the public network. So what we do is create a ’network slice’ over the operator‘s network or we create a physical and actual network if you have the spectrum and you want to invest.”


Cost is part of the Athonet appeal. Most cities don’t have the budgets for CAPEX and, as the former’s mobile network solutions are software-based, customers pay for what they use. Pricing, says Menon, is transparent with no hidden fees. Software upgrades happen automatically.


This lower cost consideration has allowed Athonet to partner with Access, the leading mobile operator in Malawi to build the country’s first mobile LTE network in record time. Deployment is based on Athonet’s LTE Virtual Core Network running on standard IT servers.


While Athonet has confirmed that it is speaking to a number of cities in the UK, it is unable as yet to name names. However, as far as facilitating partner smart city, wide-scale, roll-outs, the company believes it is the perfect fit.


Given its background and the growing list of plaudits Menon says: “We bring stability, flexibility and agility which are all very apt for smart cities.”








The victorious Athonet team after the Global Mobile Awards
The victorious Athonet team after the Global Mobile Awards
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