Friday, 2 March 2012

Mobile World Congress: small cells, big business

One of the big themes at this year’s Mobile World Congress was the integration of multiple radio access standards into a single, seamless wireless connectivity system. Variously called “off-loading” and “small cell”, the idea is to provide mobile device users with seamless access to many different technologies simultaneously, providing a massive boost to quality of service. I visited many of the major vendors at MWC – what follows is a few words on the small cell market.

Wi-Fi has been a growing part of the industry for a number of years, particularly in densely populated countries like the UK and cities like New York, however it has hitherto been a somewhat unsophisticated system, requiring separate authentication and lacking decent quality of service. All that has changed in the last year or so as technologies from the cellular industry, such as beam-forming and handover techniques have found their way into mainstream solutions.

The objective is to create a system that aggregates macro, micro and pico 2G, 3G, LTE cells with WiMax and Wi-Fi networks and switches seamlessly between them based on what the user is doing and the quality of the various connections at the user’s location. For the user, this means they are much more likely to have a high-speed connection available to them when they need. And, as all of this is enabled through authentication based on the user’s SIM, it’s good for mobile operators too

Predictably, Cisco are heavily involved and used MWC to announce what they describe as the first carrier gateway to offer the Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) standards, which enable the integration of small cells into macro networks. AT&T, BT, PCCW (Hong Kong), Shaw Communications (Canada), Portugal Telecom, Smart (Philippines), and TrueMove (Thailand) are trialling this product. Cisco aren’t the only company to get into this game – Aptilo are just one of a number of providers who have been demonstrating SIM-authenticated Wi-Fi solutions for major carriers. In their case, with TeliaSonera.

And small cells are big business. A report published for MWC forecasts that small cells will make up 88% of all base stations by 2015. No surprise that all of the major base station manufacturers are in on the act, and they are now being joined by players coming from the other direction, like WiMax specialist Alvarion, who acquired Wi-Fi specialist Wavion to create a small cell super power.

A word of warning on this technology. It’s success depends very strongly on operators being able to integrate products from many different providers, something that is notoriously difficult thanks to the proprietary nature of some of the technology that the big network manufacturers have built into their hardware. Mobile operators will have to work hard to enable a market where the innovation of smaller companies like Aptila and Alvarion can compete with the scale and installed base of the old guard.

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