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Cisco Leads Charge Towards Integrated Wi-Fi/Cellular

Nothing would please Cisco better than to see Mobile World Congress visions come true - networks of small, affordable base stations, many from non-traditional vendors and many running Wi-Fi as well as cellular, managed by increasingly intelligent IP platforms.

This approach plays to Cisco's strengths in the core and Wi-Fi, while potentially weakening the stranglehold of the big OEMs in the RAN, an area where the Cisco scarcely plays.

Focal Points:

  • Cisco duly leapt into a flood of small cell announcements with the first carrier gateway to implement the Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) standards, which automate authentication, security and roaming across cellular and Wi-Fi networks to create a transparent experience for the user, and help the cellco keep track of its customers even on WLans. Alvarion, which gained a carrier Wi-Fi play with the acquisition of Wavion, also said its latest systems are enabled for HotSpot 2.0.
  • AT&T is one of seven operators deploying or trialing Cisco's integrated platform, which combines an NGH hotspot, certified by the standard's owner Wireless Broadband Alliance, with a small cell gateway for 2G, 3G and/or LTE. The system aggregates the various networks and hands off seamlessly between them, and ensures that services like video streaming are uninterrupted at the application level. Other trial lists include BT, Hong Kong's PCCW, Canada's Shaw Communications, Portugal Telecom, Smart in the Philippines, and Thailand's TrueMove H.
  • Small base stations with integrated Wi-Fi have been one of the major features of this year's event. Ericsson, hard on the heels of acquiring carrier Wi-Fi firm BelAir, has also announced a pico base station supporting 64 cellular or WLan users. Other launches have come from the Wi-Fi community (Ruckus Wireless), the femtocell space (ip.access and Ubiquisys), and all the big five traditional base station vendors. Alcatel-Lucent added Wi-Fi management - and later integrated base stations - to its lightRadio platform while Nokia Siemens unveiled FlexiZone as a step towards HetNet.
  • However, many operators and vendors question whether the dream of the truly heterogeneous network - with cells not just for different technologies and bands, but from different vendors - can be realized, given the entrenched power of the major OEMS over operators and standards bodies. "The fundamental question is whether we really will see networks where operators can mix cells from many suppliers, some of whom might be start-ups or Taiwanese firms," said Alan Solheim, VP of corporate development at microwave backhaul supplier DragonWave, which recently launched the Horizon Avenue family of products for small cell networks - which can also incorporate an access point in the same unit. With backhaul and base station tied together in the small cell future, and interoperability standards in place, there would be an opportunity for smaller or new players from both sides of the fence to bid for business with the largest carriers.
  • However, this will require open standards to develop quickly, and the newly renamed Small Cells Forum has put its weight behind the goal. "The smallness of the cell is less important than the openness" to achieving the benefits of the new-style RAN, said Simon Saunders, chairman of the Forum. Although there are strong standards in both cellular and Wi-Fi, currently they are treated as entirely separate networks. Efforts to bring the two worlds together, such as HotSpot 2.0 and the 3GPP's Samog project, have been evolving independently of one another, reflecting the long history of separation and suspicion between the Wi-Fi and 3GPP communities.
  • The Forum has published a white paper as part of its bid to bring the various standards bodies together, and contribute work, which could help them devise a universal standard. This draws on ongoing work by the group, which outlines how combining Wi-Fi and 3G/4G can improve capacity, offload and user experience, as well as sharing backhaul, allowing carriers to use advanced traffic management tools across all their networks, and lower device costs.
  • "The use of small cells and Wi-Fi in today's mobile networks constitutes one of the most significant developments in mobile in recent years. The long-term growth in mobile coverage and capacity is fundamentally reliant on both technologies. However, by employing them separately operators are missing out on significant advantages," said Saunders. "By integrating small cells and Wi-Fi, operators can not only lower their costs and simplify installation, they can usher in an era of 'intelligent capacity', where mobile traffic will be directed along the smartest possible route in order to deliver the best possible user experience. However, in order to realize this vision, the industry is going to need to cooperate on overcoming several challenges."
  • In a new report for the Forum, Informa said it expects twenty-fold growth in small cell base stations over the next five years, from 3.2m this year, and this year will see the number of small cells (including indoor femtocells) overtaking that of traditional form factors, while by 2016 the miniaturized products will account for 88% of the total base.

Editor’s Note: It is interesting that technological differences are impeding the development of a transparent experience for the user. In an altruistic world, the end-user experience should be the ultimate objective. However, the reality is that there is a lot riding on which wireless technologies win out.

It appears that one of the interim solutions is to build devices that offer multiple alternative wireless technologies. Obviously, this is a short-term response to a long-term issue.