Ericsson wants operators to control their small cells, Wi-Fi access points

NEW ORLEANS--When it comes to small cells and Wi-Fi access points, Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), is all about ensuring operators keep a tight rein on the user experience by rigorously integrating this equipment with the rest of the network.

The infrastructure vendor is making 2012 its year for targeted pushes into both the small cell and Wi-Fi equipment arenas.

"Small cells start this year," said Hans Beijner, radio portfolio marketing manager at Ericsson, who told FierceBroadbandWireless that the rapid adoption of smartphones is just as quickly opening up new opportunities for small cell deployments.

The 3G market holds the most potential for small cells right now, given that LTE is still too new to have capacity issues. There are more than 1 billion 3G smartphone worldwide, but capacity issues are entirely localized, a situation that often calls for small cell coverage, said Beijner in an interview during the CTIA Wireless 2012 convention.

But, it can be difficult to quantify small cell demand. "Some of the operators are talking about tens of thousands of smart cells in the coming year," said Beijner. But others are looking at much smaller scales. Ericsson recently spoke to a large operator in Europe that predicted it would need to add only 150 small cells over the next five years.

Ericsson, which recently joined the board of the Small Cell Forum (formerly the Femto Forum), offers picocells and microcells in its portfolio, but no femtocells. "The problem with femtocells is the interference," said Beijner.

Much of the femtocell industry adopted the 3GPP standard luh interface for linking femtocell access points to the service provider's network, but Ericsson has never supported luh because it does not enable cell coordination. "If you do it over the luh, you can't do cell coordination, and if you don't do cell coordination, you face interference, and the only way to counter interference in the outdoor environment is to divide spectrum between the small cell and the macrocell," said Beijner

Instead, Ericsson's perspective is that all small cells, including femtos, should be linked by the Iub interface, which allows them to be integrated completely into the network just like macrocells. This is a much more complicated endeavor but one Ericsson feels is worthwhile because "it enables an operator to use the same spectrum for a small cell and a macrocell," said Beijner.

The Iub interface was not popular among some femtocell proponents because its implementation is proprietary across vendors. Ericsson also uses the Iub interface in its pico and microcells and because of the proprietary nature of the implementation, the company recommends that operators buy their small cells from their macrocell supplier. "You can't attach a small cell over an Iub from another vendor. It's not possible," said Beijner.  

In addition to offering picocell and microcell products, Ericsson has entered the Wi-Fi infrastructure business by acquiring BelAir Networks in a deal that closed last month. The move shocked much of the industry because the Swedish infrastructure king had largely turned its back on Wi-Fi. "We ignored Wi-Fi for a very long time," acknowledged Beijner.

Perhaps just as shocking is the fact that although Ericsson now has a viable Wi-Fi business under its wings, it is not pushing carriers to start plopping Wi-Fi networks here and there. "We believe still that it's a bad idea for mobile operators to just add Wi-Fi to their offering," said Beijner.

"Instead of diluting the mobile carrier brand" which can happen with a generic Wi-Fi offload implementation, operators should instead strive to add value to the offering, he said. "You need much more integration between cellular and Wi-Fi, and you need to have quality assurance in the Wi-Fi network."

Network access should be based on policies, applications and the quality of the connection, said Beijner, adding, "You can't select Wi-Fi or cellular. They are complements, not replacements."

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