Atul Bhatnagar of Cambium Networks On How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives

The way to think about this is a bigger pipe is coming for communications. That means a lot more media-rich applications. First, if you’re moving at 80 miles per hour, you will be able to handle a lot of media-rich applications with high mobility. Some of that could be high-quality sound and video. Some of that could be new, faster applications. Even when you’re sitting in a house or an office, you’ll be able to use very high-performance applications. So, the performance, mobility and quality will be superior.

5G infrastructure is being installed around the world. At the same time, most people have not yet seen what 5G can offer. What exactly is 5G? How will it improve our lives? What are the concerns that need to be addressed before it is widely adopted?

In our series, called, How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives, we are talking to tech and telecom leaders who can share how 5G can impact and enhance our lives.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Atul Bhatnagar, president and CEO of Cambium Networks.

Under Atul Bhatnagar’s leadership since early 2013, Cambium Networks has increased its global business footprint, expanded its addressable market, and worldwide market share through disruptive, innovative broadband wireless solutions. The company currently has millions of radios deployed in thousands of networks in 147 countries.

Cambium wireless connectivity solutions connect people, places and things — especially in developing communities, smart cities, industrial IoT, defense and other medium-size enterprises such as education and hospitality. By aggressively investing in new advanced technologies, Cambium has evolved its product lines to include the Massive MU-MIMO cnMedusa™ platform and the cnMaestro™ management system, which provides true end-to-end cloud-based management for all Cambium devices.

Under his leadership, Cambium Networks has received significant recognition in the industry:

  • VAR India Vendor of the Year Award
  • Chicago Innovation Award
  • Wireless ISP Association (WISPA) Manufacturer of the Year three years in a row
  • WISPA Product of the Year — PMP 450m, and Service of the Year — cnMedusa
  • CRN magazine award for Top 100 channel programs in 2016
  • SMB Techfest Award — cnPilot Wi-Fi

To further extend its reach globally, Cambium offers an award-winning and innovative channel program. Cambium’s channel has expanded to include more than 3,300 partners worldwide, providing quality connectivity solutions for industrial, enterprise and residential customers.

Previously, Bhatnagar served as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Ixia, where he enabled strong revenue growth by pursuing high-growth adjacent segments such as LTE and Wi-Fi testing and simulation. He also served as Vice President and General Manager of Nortel’s Enterprise Data Networks division and at Hewlett-Packard Company in several GM positions involving wireless network management and creating innovative internet appliances.

The University of New Mexico School of Electrical and Computer Engineering named Mr. Bhatnagar as their Distinguished Alumni for 2020.

Mr. Bhatnagar holds Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate from Stanford University, along with Corporate Governance executive education at Harvard Business School. He holds an M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from the Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences, Pilani, India.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

The foundation of my career is based on academics, including my undergraduate work in electrical engineering, and earning my master’s degree in electrical engineering. That set the foundation because the communications industry was just inventing next gen open networks when I started in the business in the early 1980s. The early foundation for the internet was being set. So these were really exciting years to be in electrical engineering or computer engineering. And the decision I made was, “I think I’ll take my time to develop properly in each function over the next 10 years, 15 years, rather than rushing into climbing the ladder.”

I was very lucky that I joined Hewlett Packard, which was a large enough company that you could move around different functions and learn different aspects of the business. Ultimately, that gave me a good foundation to be a general manager. Then I took a foreign service assignment and got international business knowledge. So, by the time I was leading Cambium Networks, I’d had good exposure to different functions and experiences that develop people skills and business skills. Most importantly, that depth develops your intuition because a lot of our decisions are made based on intuition. We gather a lot of data. However, it’s ultimately a bet on the future. You need that intuition, which is significantly experiential.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There are two I can share. Number one: just because you are ready for opportunity does not mean that opportunity is ready for you. When I was almost ready to lead an engineering team at HP, for example, the right opportunity did not come. But another one came, which was more about developing myself in process and quality. That was not an ideal job for what I wanted to do, but I said, “No problem. Let me do that and learn about process improvements and quality.” Just a year and a half later, the right engineering leadership job came up, and by then I had also gotten process engineering knowledge. So, the lesson for me was that sometimes, we get frustrated that the right opportunity is not coming. However, we just must acknowledge that for whatever reason, the opportunity which is right in front of you is the right path.

There’s a door that opens as you get the experience. The bigger door will be just down the path when you might least expect it. Ultimately, when you fast forward over five years, you end up accomplishing what you wanted to do. It may not be in the sequence you wanted it to come, but you do get to the final result. By being flexible about whatever opportunity comes your way and by taking that opportunity, you develop a lot of background, which later becomes relevant. Now, as the leader of the company — process engineering and quality focus — are very important skills for the job.

The second one is try not to focus on titles. Focus on learning. Many times, a situation comes along where you’re interviewing for a particular job and the company ultimately does not give you the big title, but they give you an opportunity where you can prove yourself. Take that if it is the right field and if it is a good company. You will eventually reach that title. I would say those are probably the two most important things that happened over the years for me, which, in hindsight, all led to the right path for me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Gandhi said, Be the change you want to see in others. A lot of times, we try to change others. And I think the important thing is to change ourselves. As you change yourself, you also positively impact people around you who observe how you work, think, and act. Each of us must determine what it is that we can do to change ourselves. In the process, whether it’s your family or others around you, to help them change. For example, you tell somebody, “Hey, always be calm, always be thoughtful and listen carefully.” But if you don’t have those attributes, then it doesn’t matter. Even if you say those things, nobody’s going to listen to you. Whereas if you display that, then people will emulate you more.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The person who probably positively influenced me was my boss at HP when I was a first-time manager. That was three to four years out of grad school. His name was Todd Reece. He was a young, upwardly mobile manager. He had a lot of great attributes: very good people skills, never lost his temper, always thoughtful, always used a lot of common sense in his decision-making and a straightforward communicator. He was just a good leader of people. He’s the one I would say I observed and wanted to emulate. I was a very young first-time manager. I was looking for best practices as a leader. His behavior and the way he worked gave me a lot of useful best practices: the way he would methodically write down action items, and then check them one by one. Nothing ever dropped through the cracks. Also, he was innovative. He empowered his people to work.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The first one is to motivate people to do their best work. I always try to find what the person is passionate about — what makes their eyes light up as they’re talking. It may not be their title. It may not be the job function they are in. However, you will see their enthusiasm when they explain something. Then you might find out that this person is, for example, a better fit for marketing than R&D. But perhaps nobody’s giving them that opportunity. Some of the best decisions are made when you find that spark. Then you can tell them, “Hey, why don’t you try this?” We have had fantastic successes at Cambium Networks with people who have emerged as stronger leaders and contributors.

A person may have done testing in their career, but they ended up becoming one of the best engineering managers. Maybe their prowess in design was not as strong, but they were good people leaders. So, they were able to motivate and empower their design engineers to create excellence. They may not be the best coder or the best engineer. But they may be a good leader. They might be passionate about synthesizing things together and creating innovations. Similarly, sometimes the best salesperson is the person who was a technical person or a technical manager. Over the years, they picked up people skills. They picked up communication skills. They picked up customer interaction skills, and they became one of the best salespersons. I think that focusing on a person’s innate passion is far more important than what degree they are carrying, which function they’re in or what title they hold.

The second character trait is to recognize an opportunity or technological trend. It’s important to know when to take a bet on that. In our case, four or five years ago, we recognized a very good trend that we should bet on: outdoor Wi-Fi. It was particularly important because we do a lot of outdoor broadband. As we did outdoor Wi-Fi, we started developing some indoor Wi-Fi as well. It created the concentric circle around our current business. Then we started expanding into the enterprise business. Similarly, we recognized MU-MIMO as the architecture of the future for our company. We bet on them, and we created Medusa, which is our massive 14×14 multi-user MIMO product. It is a breakthrough product and the first in the world of its kind. Even five years later, it is still the industry leader.

The third trait is to surround yourself continuously with people better than you, so you can keep learning new things and keep improving as a company. Every time I interview somebody, especially for a leadership position, I ask, “What can I learn from this person?” This is especially true if they are going to lead a function. They must be far superior than me in that function and must bring something that I can learn from them. So, instead of me telling them what to do, they should be telling me how they will lead and what they will do. That’s value-add. Every person who works for me, in their function, are far better than me at it. I’m able to synthesize, listen and select a direction. But in their function, I would say pretty much everybody who works for me is an expert. That should be a key criteria when you’re hiring people. Because if you are better than them, then you’re not going to improve that function.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects? How do you think that will help people?

Our newest wireless technology operates in the 60 GHz millimeter wave frequency band. These radios are delivering multi-gigabit throughput over wireless. Wireless is the new fiber. Service providers are rapidly extending their fiber and cable infrastructure. Enterprises are building private campus area networks. Municipalities are improving efficiency and building community networks. Students now have access to digital learning, developing communities can improve opportunities with access to information, and municipalities are improving public safety and efficiency. Affordable, high speed technology that can be rapidly deployed changes the equation in improving connectivity.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Like 4G, 5G has many different facets, and I’m sure many will approach this question differently. But for the benefit of our readers can you explain to us what 5G is? How is 5G different from its predecessor 4G?

The standards bodies who created the 5G standard had to do so over the course of 10–15 years. So, they looked into the future of technology. They knew the speeds and feeds had to be far higher since people would use it for AR, VR, multimedia and HD video. So, the first difference is much higher performance. Secondly, 5G means a lot more machine-to-machine communication. 5G standards deliver lower latency technology, which enables machine-to-machine communication.

The creators of the 5G standard also understood that you will have much higher frequencies available for communications — a wider band, which means more performance and more throughput. They adopted higher frequencies, which drives some of the millimeter wave adoption. Lastly, the standards bodies understood that fixed wireless broadband would be a key way to do things for many applications. As a result, they legitimized fixed wireless broadband. All those things bode well for the kind of things we do at Cambium Networks.

It takes time to create a 5G standard, but it also takes time to deploy it. Now, in the next five to ten years we’ll see a lot more of 5G because it’s the new standard. The time cycle for things like 5G are in the order of 10–15 years of creation, and 10 years of deployments. During this time, we will definitely harness that power. Different communities and countries will adopt the standards at a different pace, but 5G is the next generation standard.

Can you share three or four ways that 5G might improve our lives? If you can please share an example, for each.

The way to think about this is a bigger pipe is coming for communications. That means a lot more media-rich applications. First, if you’re moving at 80 miles per hour, you will be able to handle a lot of media-rich applications with high mobility. Some of that could be high-quality sound and video. Some of that could be new, faster applications. Even when you’re sitting in a house or an office, you’ll be able to use very high-performance applications. So, the performance, mobility and quality will be superior. Secondly, it will enable the next set of machine to machine communications, because of that lower latency. Thirdly, it would be higher frequencies. Now you’ll have a very high-speed connectivity at the edge for example with the 28 GHz frequencies. You have wider channels and more throughput.

One good example is machine to machine communication in the industrial world. A lot of industrial set-ups are in remote locations, and many of these remote locations are digitizing. Sensors are digitizing the measurement and the infrastructure. We will have thousands and thousands of sensors in each industrial setup. 5G protocols are resilient, high performance, and low latency. So they’ll enable the next generation of automation for all industrial infrastructure — the energy grid, water and waste management, oil and gas, locomotives and transportation. You’ll see a lot of automation. As you marry machine learning with high speed communications and other new technologies, you’ll see even more automation.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this 5G technology that people should think more deeply about?

Connectivity in general is a very positive thing. It enables a lot of applications like healthcare, social communications and connectivity within the family. There are a lot of positive things. The world has become smaller. Families have become closer. The key downside in my mind is that you still have to be very disciplined to strike a balance in life. You can very easily be carried away with non-stop connectivity, non-stop computation and working your brain non-stop. The key thing to remember as we move into the future is that these are great technologies and enablers. We are closer as a society, but you need downtime. Your mind needs time to rest and recuperate. Each one of us has to be disciplined enough to say, “Okay, I need to turn things off now for some time. And this is my time to rest. This is my downtime.” That in my mind, is the key. If you strike the balance and use the positivity of connectivity but are not carried away with non-stop action.

Some have raised the question that 5G might widen the digital divide and leave poor people or marginalized people behind. From your perspective, what can be done to address and correct this concern?

The 5G technologies and standards are being implemented in all sorts of systems in a very cost-effective manner. That’s what Cambium does. We take these standards, and then we apply innovation to implement them in such a manner that you benefit from the standards, quality and resiliency of that connectivity. We do it in such a manner that it’s still very affordable. That’s our secret sauce. We always make our systems affordable, yet we maintain quality. So, we see that these new technologies will be adopted on a broader scale. They will be adopted by all sorts of communities, including developing communities in the US and abroad. We have a track record of serving developing communities, and that will continue.

At the very high end, 5G with very high monthly plans from different services providers will be one segment. However, there will be lots of communications services at the mid-segment that are affordable, high performing and high quality. Companies like Cambium Networks thrive on that value proposition. Of course, there are many examples of Cambium Networks serving developing communities. We’ve done this in McAllen, Texas, a border town. We have deployed almost 10 million radios and have products in over 150 countries. That is a testimonial to what we do. We provide affordable quality, and we go deep and wide to serve those developing communities that can afford a certain level, per month. Our innovation provides that affordability.

Excellent. We are nearly done. Let’s zoom out a bit and ask a more general question. Based on your experience and success, what are the 5 things you need to create a highly successful career in the telecommunication industry? (Please share a story or example for each.)

The first one is your desire to learn new things. When you look at telco careers, we started with just Ethernet. Next, we learned TCP IP. Eventually, we learned applications. Then internet came along, so we learned that. Afterward, we learned cloud. Later, we learned wireless. Now we’re learning millimeter wave. Our learning continues. There must be a desire to learn. Without that, you just don’t pick up the relevant skills.

The second is to have a drive and to keep progressing despite hurdles or obstacles. You have to have that drive — not just in telecommunications, but with any field. You’re going to run into a lot of barriers. Sometimes the products won’t work the first time and sometimes it’ll take another one-year effort to make it work completely right with high quality. We have so many examples of something that doesn’t work the very first time the way we wanted it to. Yet, you must have the perseverance and you just keep digging and don’t give up.

The third is to just maintain a belief that all good things happen when good people work together in a team environment. Fundamentally, it comes down to this. None of us have all the knowledge to do all things for the product or the company. We always work as a team, and each person is bringing their expertise. Somebody is a great hardware engineer. Somebody is a great software engineer. Somebody is a great tester. Somebody is a great marketeer. Somebody is very good with customers and able to keep them calm when problems arise. All of that is required in the project, and all projects need that. We need the team. There is no super person who knows it all and pulls it together. It’s always the best in class people coming together to create the best in class product.

The fourth is to keep learning and developing that intuition, to sense where the puck is going to be. Position yourself in that spot or field by constantly learning so that you are relevant for what is going to be the field of the future. That is very intuitive. It is also very experiential in the sense that, through the years, you develop a sixth sense that this technology or application is going to change the way we work. You’ve seen what you’ve seen, what doesn’t work, and in general, that whatever is simple, elegant and affordable — generally ends up winning. That is what will be adopted by the masses, the standard that will be adopted by lots of people. You just develop that sense.

The last one is personally sharing the success with people around you to whatever degree you can. So, it’s not just about you; it’s about everybody else around you as well. There comes that time in everybody’s life when you share with others. Everybody has to achieve a level of success themselves first, like a cloud getting saturated before it rains. First, you have to be satisfied with yourself. Then there comes a time where you think, “I’m happy with what I have achieved and with where I am now. Let me pay it forward.” For example, as a company, we support many good causes. When there are disasters in different regions, we support with wireless communications. We mentor young minds. We contribute to universities that we came from. We contribute to the communities we serve. One of our company values is to contribute to the communities where we live. At all the sites we have, we encourage our people to contribute back, no matter how small or big. Just be involved because it’s so rewarding. You feel good when you’re not just taking care of yourself, but when you’re taking care of many people around you. That’s a lot more rewarding.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In the United States, there’s probably north of 20 million homes that still either don’t have broadband or have sub-performing broadband. I’m just saying the United States, but this is applicable across the entire world. We want to level the playing field by bringing connectivity to those 20 million homes and to the young minds of the future that live there. They deserve the same chance at future opportunities. That would be a phenomenal way to contribute to the world. Bringing mainstream connectivity, especially to younger minds, and giving them opportunities is a great way to create a better future.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.


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