HetNets unite small cell, Wi-Fi players

Small 3G and 4G cells were once seen as an alternative to Wi-Fi access points for data offload, either inside the home or in the public network. However, as carriers scrabble to use any available capacity and spectrum – including unlicensed – they are increasingly keen to combine both approaches as they move towards full heterogeneous networks (HetNets). This has brought the industry bodies behind the two technologies closer together.
At this year's Mobile World Congress, the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), an operator-driven organization supporting carrier Wi-Fi and WLan roaming, talked about its deepening alliances with other bodies – the more vendor-driven Wi-Fi Alliance, and the Small Cell Forum. In the former case, the two WLan groups are collaborating in standards to support seamless hand-off and single log-in between 3GPP and Wi-Fi networks. And talks with the Small Cell Forum are also now bearing fruit, with the two groups promising to share best practices for both kinds of hotspot.
They have also launched a study of how small cells could affect the WBA's initiatives with the Alliance and with the GSM Association, to create common access standards and converge the key HotSpot 2.0 and Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) platforms. The groups will also work on integration between Wi-Fi and cellular small cells at a network level so that cellular-based services like voice or SMS can be supported over Wi-Fi, and operators can ensure uninterrupted services when users move between WLans and 3GPP small cells.
This would be an important step towards HetNet, and towards making Wi-Fi more than just a pipe into the cellular network. As well as lowering equipment costs through greater integration, operators can start to design networks in which traffic is intelligently routed across either channel depending on the application or the quality of the link. The two channels could even be bonded together to create a very high bandwidth connection.
“The days of Wi-Fi versus cellular are dead. Both technologies are crucial for supporting the never-ending growth in data traffic,” said Gordon Mansfield, chairman of the Small Cell Forum. “Wi-Fi hotspots are proving a valuable tool for managing surging mobile data traffic. Small cells, which now outnumber macrocells globally, represent the future of cellular as it strives to achieve new levels of coverage and capacity for all mobile devices. By bringing the two together, we can deliver a better experience for all users across all devices.”
The WBA has also released the results of a survey commissioned from Informa, which shows that 19% of operators expect to deploy Next Generation Hotspot carrier Wi-Fi standards, which are based on the Wi-Fi Alliance's Passpoint certification program. "Large operators are already seeing a significant increase in Wi-Fi usage. China Mobile, for example, saw a 102.5% year-on-year increase in Wi-Fi traffic in H1 2012, and Japan's NTT Docomo plans to grow its 14,200 hotspots by as much as 1.5 times before the end of the year," said the organization.
Finally, the WBA has added 14 new members to its list, including more vendors in a line-up which was originally centered on fixed and mobile operators. The new entrants include vendors Huawei and Alvarion plus operators Hutchison, Towerstream and Belgacom. Other joiners are AlwaysOn, BandwidthX, Crown Castle, Front Porch, Netgem, NTT Broadband Platform, Quad-riga Worldwide and Sysnet Integrators.