May 22, 2012

Wi-Fi Looks to Upgrade to Carrier Class

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Next Gen Mobility magazine.

There’s a move afoot in the industry to make Wi-Fi carrier quality. The goal is to enable cellular service providers to integrate 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi at the base station and have common control, security, management and optimization capabilities for all of the above.

In this scenario, Wi-Fi is just another connectivity mode in the heterogeneous network – or hetnet. And every vendor in the wireless access space, from the big guns like Alcatel Lucent (News - Alert) and Ericsson, to smaller outfits, is talking about carrier-class Wi-Fi and the rise of the hetnet.

Fresh off of announcing plans to buy BelAir Networks, Ericsson at Mobile World Congress (News - Alert) this February in Barcelona unveiled a new pico base station. Both the new product and the acquisition are Ericsson efforts to align cellular and Wi-Fi more closely, says Mikael Back, Ericsson AB vice president.

The multi-standard RBS with integrated Wi-Fi access is part of Ericsson’s RBS 6000 portfolio, which includes products ranging from pico to macro. These products are designed to help network operators add capacity with a relatively small footprint and, thus, real estate requirement, and deliver what Ericsson says are two to 10 times the throughput gains using half the spectrum of competing solutions. Because the pico radio base station has integrated Wi-Fi, that makes it easier for service providers to add small cells to the network using both licensed and unlicensed spectrum – and to backhaul traffic from both over shared facilities.

Meanwhile, Back says that Ericsson’s move to purchase BelAir also will let its service provider customers more easily integrate Wi-Fi and their cellular services. BelAir sells indoor and outdoor Wi-Fi systems that are in use by such service providers as AT&T and Comcast (News - Alert).

"Ericsson will lead the way in the growing converged Wi-Fi and cellular market where improved end user experience is the driving force. By integrating BelAir Networks' market-leading products and competence into Ericsson's existing radio portfolio, we will be able to do this more quickly. We welcome 120 highly skilled people into the company," said Hans Vestberg (News - Alert), CEO of Ericsson, in announcing the BelAir deal.

Thomas R. Gruba, senior director of 3GPP product marketing at Alcatel Lucent, says the company offers metrocells (or what some might call picocells), macrocells and carrier-grade Wi-Fi as part of its hetnet strategy.

The products are based on the company’s lightRadio technology, which uses beam forming that makes amplifiers on the radio towers more energy efficient, have an extremely small footprint, and lower the cost per bit for carriers. Alcatel Lucent on Feb. 14 introduced a Wi-Fi-enabled version of lightRadio.

Industry bodies are working the issue as well. For example, the GSMA (News - Alert) and the Wireless Broadband Alliance have joined forces to simplify connectivity to Wi-Fi hotspots from mobile devices. To do that, the organizations plan to develop technical and commercial frameworks for Wi-Fi roaming.

“The combination of Wi-Fi and mobile technologies extends the power of broadband for consumers,” says Shrikant Shenwai, CEO of the WBA. “The work by the WBA and the GSMA will expedite the availability of a new generation of Internet access for the benefit of consumers everywhere. Key to this is Wi-Fi being able to replicate the success of mobile technology and allow users to roam seamlessly between different networks.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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