AT&T to test small cells, counts 'several hundred thousand' femtocells

BARCELONA, Spain--AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) plans to test small cells in its network later this year. The carrier also announced it counts "several hundred thousand" Cisco femtocells in its network.

The news underscores the increasingly noisy buzz around small cells, Wi-Fi and femtocells in the wireless network. Vendors now moving into the small cell and Wi-Fi area include Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) and--just announced today--Cisco. During a press event here, Cisco unveiled its "Small Cell Gateway," which the company said is based on its ASR 5000 Series Mobile Multimedia Core Router and can integrate 2G/3G/4G LTE networks with femtocells and Wi-Fi hotspots.

And it appears the noise around small cells is generating fire. Kris Rinne, senior vice president of architectures for AT&T, said the carrier will test small cells in its macro network later this year. Rinne wasn't immediately available to provide any further details, including what the tests would involve, what type of technology they would employ, and which vendor AT&T would use.

AT&T isn't alone in fingering small cells. According to research commissioned by the Small Cell Forum (formerly the Femto Forum) and produced by Informa, small cells will outnumber macrocells by year-end, growing from 3.2 million deployed in 2012 to 59 million deployed by 2016.

Interestingly, Rinne also said AT&T now counts "several hundred thousand" femtocells in its network. She declined to provide a more specific number. AT&T began offering its Cisco femtocell nationwide in April 2010. The device acts as a mini base station that users tie to their home wired Internet connection in order to access a bubble of AT&T service.

AT&T's femtocell number is relatively comparable to Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) femtocell rollout. The carrier said in March 2011 that it counted 250,000 femtocells on its network, and expected to increase that number to 1 million within the next few years.

For more:
- see this Cisco release
- see this EETimes article

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