BARCELONA – Claiming the era of the big cellular base station is over, Cisco Systems joined the growing ranks of vendors rolling out hybrid systems that handle both cellular and Wi-Fi traffic. The networking giant claimed its new gateway for carriers is the first certified to support a new standard easing traffic movement between the two nets.
Cisco’s news comes as a wide swath of competitors announce merged products at the Mobile World Congress
The largest of them, Ericsson, said yesterdsay it will ship in the first half of 2013 a so-called pico base station for use indoors that can handle up to 64 cellular or Wi-Fi users. Just prior to the event, Ericsson acquired BelAir
Networks, a supplier of carrier-class Wi-Fi access points.
Similarly Ruckus Wireless (Sunnyvale, Calif.) and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen) rolled out small base stations that support both cellular and Wi-Fi networks. Separately, IP.access (Cambridge, U.K.) and Option (Leuven, Belgium) launched consumer access points for both cellular and Wi-Fi.
“All of the major telecom vendors—including Alcatel-Lucent--are integrating Wi-Fi,” said Chris Nicoll, a principal analyst with ACG Research. They are motivated by the fact, “most every telecom operator either has a carrier Wi-Fi strategy in place or is building one,” said Peter Jarich, a service director of market watcher Current Analysis.
For its part, AT&T has seen the number of authenticated Wi-Fi users on ite cellular offload network double each quarter, said Kris Rinne, senior vice president of architecture for AT&T, speaking at a Cisco event here. AT&T will trial several hundred thousand small cell base stations next year. Ultimately it wants to see systems that merge 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi with common management tools, she added.
Cellular carriers see Wi-Fi as a quick way to offload traffic from congested mobile data nets before they can deploy LTE.
So far most carrier-grade Wi-Fi access points and an emerging class of small cellular base stations are still separate designs. Vendors expect the systems will converge, but said they will require an expanded set of standards and APIs.
Taking one step in that direction, Cisco announced what it said was the first gateway implementing HotSpot 2.0, a collection of standards collated by the Wireless Broadband Alliance. The specs automate authentication, security and roaming across cellular and Wi-Fi nets.
Several vendors are expected to quickly follow suit with support of Hotspot 2.0. For ecxample, Alvarion Ltd., a supplier of carrier-class Wi-Fi systems, said the latest systems it launched here today are Hotspot 2.0-ready.
More standards work is on the horizon.
“Today we have great 3GPP standards for 3G and LTE femtocells [used in homes and businesses] but they are treated as separate devices,” said Simon Saunders, chairman of the Small Cell Forum, a trade group. “Hybrid products are starting to come out today and there is a need to fill the standards gap” to address managing multiple nets on one device he said.
The 3GPP also has a project called Samog, working on the area. The group is hammering out ways to handle security and roaming issues.
Separately, the Small Cell Forum launched a developer’s community to attract work on apps for small cells using a set of APIs it rolled out last year. The Forum recently struck a deal with the Open Mobile Alliance to update and expand those APIs that will eventually embrace Wi-Fi.
The Forum is itself going through a makeover. It recently changed its name from the Femto Forum signaling its interest beyond the small femtocells used in homes and businesses to so-called micro, metro and pico cells carriers aim to deploy in buildings and outdoors.
“We are entering the post-macrocell era, where the type of radio no longer defines the network architecture and where small cells will play a critical role in delivering the mobile Internet,¨ said Cisco chief executive John Chambers, speaking in a press statement. “Tomorrow’s mobile Internet must span multiple networks and deliver seamless and highly secure mobile experiences,” he added.
K. Jay Miyahara, a chief engineer in NEC’s network group, expressed some skepticism about how broad the trend to hybrid networks will be. Wi-Fi makes no sense for rooftop base stations, he said, adding that NEC is still debating whether it will integrate Wi-Fi into its future small cells
In a report released today, market watcher Informa said it expects twenty-fold growth in small cell base stations over the next five years. Unit shipments will rise from 3.2 million this year to 62.4 million in 2016 with 95 percent of them still being the small femto cells.
This year will mark the crossover of more small cells installed than traditional macro base stations, Informa added. “The shape of wireless networks has changed and is set to change even more radically,” said Saunders of the Small Cell Forum.
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