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Investors look to carrier, mobile, IP TV markets for start-ups

May 02, 20063 mins
Cellular NetworksCisco SystemsNetworking

Cisco's market dominance in business networks makes it an uninteresting investment area for VCs and fund managers.

IT executives should be familiar with what’s keeping investors from putting money into enterprise- and small-and-midsize-business-focused start-ups: it’s Cisco, investors say.

Venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and securities analysts speaking at a panel at Interop this week said the biggest network-related growth areas for investors are almost everywhere but the enterprise; carrier edge routing and metro Ethernet, IP video to homes and mobile devices and high-bandwidth cellular handset and network technologies are targets for start-up funding dollars these days, these investors said.

While VoIP and wireless LANs are hot technologies in the enterprise, it’s hard for any start-up to break in because of Cisco, said Nathaniel Cohn, managing director of the Galleon Group, a hedge fund that invests in IT and network vendors, among other companies.

“The challenge from an investment standpoint is how do you take advantage of [VoIP and WLANs] in a market where the largest player owns 70% of the market in Ethernet switching,” Cohn said.

“The complexity of rolling out VoIP, and all the network upgrades that go with it, is an advantage for Cisco because of its large installed base,” he said. “You can see it in the numbers in terms of the leverage they have because of their incumbency in the enterprise.”

The result of Cisco’s Ethernet dominance is its market leadership in enterprise wireless LANs and VoIP, Cohn added.

Enterprise and SMB technology “has been a hard place for investing in,” said Carl Amdahl, technology partner for VC firm Doll Capital Management. “VoIP is a technology that stands out because it’s a cost-saving thing. Dealing with branch offices and integrating them and reducing latency is another huge issue.”

Amdahl said there was a lot of start-up activity in the last few years in this area, and the technology was validated by last year’s rash of buyouts – namely Juniper, Cisco and Citrix acquiring WAN optimization and application acceleration firms.

The application of Layer 4-7 switching technologies to data centers and storage virtualization is another area of interest for enterprise investing, Amdahl said.

“Layer 2 is fully commoditized. Layer 3 is almost commoditized. Why are we talking about Layer 4-7?” said Inder Singh, senior vice president at Prudential Equity Group. “Because it’s not commoditized yet.”

All of the panelists – the VC, the hedge fund manager and the stock analyst – all pointed to consumer video, mobile networking and devices, and network convergence at the carrier edge as the real hot spots where they are focused.

Amdahl said the three start-up deals he managed involved companies with “advanced wireless technology for mobile devices and handsets, chips and silicon for video applications in the home, and video delivery” over carrier networks.

There is a lot of network transformation and convergence going on in telecom,” said Cohn. “Ethernet is becoming more of a presence everywhere. Access networks are getting overhauled.” The complexity of edge switching and routing, combined with video delivery, is also giving opportunities for optical start-ups – a market that took the most brutal hit after the 2000 tech bust, he added.

Singh, of Prudential Equity Group, said he is keeping an eye on companies focusing on two emerging standards for wireless video delivery: digital video broadband over handset (DVBH) and Media Flow. “DVBH is being pushed by Qualcomm,” Singh said. “Media Flow is being pushed by everyone who hates Qualcomm.”

He added that high-bandwidth mobile video and TV offerings delivered to handhelds will make it to North America soon. “Are we [the North American market] in catch-up mode? Yes,” he said.