AT&T's Rinne: Small cells, SON and VoLTE coming in 2012, 2013

NEW ORLEANS--AT&T Mobility's (NYSE:T) network will begin adding new network functionalities--such as HetNets and SON--before year's end, with VoLTE to follow in 2013, said Kristin Rinne, senior vice president of Network Technologies at AT&T Labs, during her keynote speech here during FierceWireless' The Path to 4G event at the CTIA Wireless 2012 show.

AT&T Kris Rinne


Noting that AT&T is on target to cover 80 percent of the U.S. population with LTE by the end of 2013, Rinne compared AT&T's efforts to deploy this wireless broadband technology nationwide to the build out of the Transcontinental Railroad, which linked the U.S. East and West Coasts when it was completed in 1869. She said the nineteenth-century railroad goals of increased speeds, improved commerce and improved communications resonate today as well.  

One of the functionalities AT&T intends to employ is heterogenous networks (HetNets), featuring small cells, which can add density to the macro layer with low-power nodes. Another benefit of small cells is that they can often be deployed without local zoning approval.

Rinne said AT&T will begin deploying small cells in earnest later this year based on the needs of high-density areas. "AT&T has been an advocate of small cells for several years, and we've spent a lot of time with our vendors working on a strategy for deployment," she said. Rinne told the audience that AT&T would eventually like to deploy multimode small cells that encompass LTE, HSPA+, WCDMA and Wi-Fi, though she confirmed later the operator will initially need to deploy most of the components individually.

Another advanced feature AT&T is employing is SON, which alternately stands for self-optimizing or self-organizing networks. Noting that SON helps improve network management by shifting traffic in real time to neighboring towers and different-size cells as needed, Rinne said, "AT&T is very bullish on its capability in our network."

AT&T has been working with Intucell on SON since mid 2011, and trial deployments in California and Georgia have been commercialized. The operator expects to have nationwide SON deployment in all of its WCDMA/HSPA+ markets by midyear.

"The third tool in our toolbox ... is carrier aggregation," said Rinne, which she added is especially crucial in the fragmented spectrum landscape across the United States. "AT&T, for example, owns licenses for spectrum in different frequencies in different blocks in varying amounts in every city all over the country," she said, adding the operator is working with infrastructure suppliers and device manufacturers to eventually enable the complicated task of carrier aggregation.

HetNets, SON and carrier aggregation are all standardized features of 3GPP Release 10 LTE Advanced. AT&T is moving to deploy several LTE Advanced elements by 2013, not only because they offer increased data capacity and speeds but also because they improve the intelligence of the network, said Rinne.

AT&T also has big plans for voice over LTE, which is "firmly in our business plan for initial deployments in 2013," said Rinne. However, AT&T will first need to ensure that VoLTE meets mandates regarding law-enforcement regulations such as E911 and provides satisfactory quality of service. The operator also must ensure that circuit-switched fallback features work, especially for international travel, she said.

Along with VoLTE, Rich Communication Service (RCS) is particularly important to operators as they move customers into an all-IP environment, said Rinne. RCS will transfer legacy services such as voice and texting to an all-IP environment but will also deliver new services such as active messaging, video calling and collaboration across multiple network providers and devices.

Rinne also discussed AT&T's Living the Networked Life effort, which looks at futuristic concepts based on technologies from AT&T Labs and AT&T Foundry. At the heart of many envisioned apps is AT&T's Watson speech-recognition technology, already used in a variety of applications such as mobile voice directory search and voicemail to text. The company has some 600 patents in this area.

"We know that we need to accelerate this by opening up our platforms and our network services to different developer communities. So next month, beginning in June, we plan to launch several AT&T Watson Speech APIs that developers can access in our cloud," said Rinne.

Developers can leverage Watson speech-recognition and transcription capabilities in their applications. The program will initially focus on seven areas: Web search, local business search, question and answer, voice mail to text, SMS, U-verse electronic programming guide and a dictation API for general use of speech recognition.

Rinne returned to the topic of the Transcontinental Railway in her speech, noting that it was a public-private partnership in which the government granted the railroad builders 6,400 acres of land for every mile of track laid and as much as $48,000 in government bonds for each mile completed

In contrast, "today, of course, the private sector pays the government for that rare commodity that we call spectrum," said Rinne.

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