Eyeing distributed antenna system boom, Cobham buys Axell for $131M

As mobile broadband evolves and users want good coverage wherever they go, various strategies are evolving to make this happen. One involves the replacement of single high-powered antennas with multiple low-powered antennas that can be spread around specific locations, in order to either boost indoor coverage or shore up capacity in traditional outdoor networks – these are known as distributed antenna systems (DAS), and a major player in that space just got bought.

That player is the UK’s Axell Wireless, whose commercial and public-safety-oriented DAS installations have aided coverage everywhere from the Pentagon to the London Olympics last year (and the London Underground, too) — interestingly, the company recently branched out into Wi-Fi DAS as well as cellular. The buyer is Cobham, also a British firm, which provides antennas and other technology for the aerospace and defense sectors, but also for commercial customers.

The deal is worth £85 million ($131 million) — £60 million up front and the rest pending good performance in the next year or two. Axell CEO Ian Brown told me on Friday that the buy would mainly help the commercial side of that business:

“The thing that’s really been driving the cellular part of the market is the mass proliferation of smartphones. Now 80 percent of mobile traffic emanates from the building – people are using their mobile phones more inside than when outside.

“Cobham is obviously in the communications and technology business, selling to the defense and commercial markets. As a business, they’ve been looking for adjacent sectors to get into to extend the commercial mix… and that’s their strategic rationale for acquiring Axell.”

Brown noted that the demand for DAS will increase greatly through the rollout of 4G networks (AT&T(s t) would no doubt agree), but also through regulations around public safety networks, the market in which Axell is particularly strong.

“Since the unfortunate events of [9/11] a lot of governments around the world have put into statute that key pieces of infrastructure must have public safety communications,” Brown said. “You can’t open a road tunnel in Europe now unless you have public safety communications.”