Ruckus Wi-Fi gear preps O2 for small cell future

Telefonica UK's O2 business is deploying outdoor Wi-Fi gear around London that will also support collocated small cell radios in the future.

The deployment of Ruckus Wireless' SmartCell 8800 gear is part of O2's effort to deliver free Wi-Fi across some of central London's most congested areas, including Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square, Leicester Square, Regent Street and Oxford Street. The rollout of more than 100 Wi-Fi access points mounted on lampposts and similar structures will reach the London boroughs of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea.

O2 hopes that by making a significant land grab via this street-level Wi-Fi deployment, it will be nicely positioned to add small cells for its licensed spectrum at the same locations in the not-too-distant future.

"The way we built and designed the whole network is future-proofed, so when the technology is mature enough we can then retrofit, or add in, the cellular component," which will include a combination of HSPA and LTE radios, Gavin Franks, managing director of O2 WiFi, told FierceBroadbandWireless.

free outdoor wi-fi coverage in london

O2 plans to rollout more than 100 Wi-Fi access points in London.

Laying out a true heterogeneous network (HetNet) involves a balancing act that takes into account power requirements and components size as well manages interference between the macro and micro layers, Franks said, noting O2 intends to use the London Wi-Fi deployment as a test bed for small cell technology once it's deemed mature enough.

ruckus wireless smartcell 8800

The boxes are being deployed on lampposts and similar structures.

O2's street-level Wi-Fi network will "allow for subsequent integration, at minimum impact, for small cells when we can bring those in," he said. "We've effectively planned our networks with small cells in mind."

The boxes being deployed on lampposts and other "street furniture" are twice as large as needed for a Wi-Fi only deployment, added Franks. "But what we've got is planning permission for those boxes so we can lift off the front cover and put extra electronics in to create an integrated service."

O2 operates a limited number of small cells in targeted deployments and recently began selling femtocells. "What we haven't done yet is a full-scale deployment of a true small cell network," he said.

The idea of deploying small cells alongside Wi-Fi access points is gaining traction across the wireless industry, said Steven Glapa, senior director of marketing at Ruckus Wireless. "Over time, there will be more sophistication in terms of network selection on an application-by-application basis. It's understood that the licensed-band spectrum is still beachfront property" because it offers carriers the most control over quality of service, he said.

The unlicensed bands used by Wi-Fi, on the other hand, are best suited to applications that are less sensitive to latency or jitter issues. "For the most part, we see people thinking of voice staying on the licensed band, for a while anyway, while YouTube videos are perfectly suited to Wi-Fi," Glapa said.

In addition, operators are seeing the need to supplement their 3G and LTE services with Wi-Fi because many devices, such as tablet computers, do not have cellular capability and, thus, are restricted to Wi-Fi communications. "Operators have to have the access technology that will reach their subscribers' complete set of needs," he said.

The backhaul for O2's outdoor metro Wi-Fi roll out is being supplied through a mix of fiber and Cambridge Broadband Networks' VectaStar multipoint microwave equipment in the 28 GHz band. O2 is also using Ruckus' 5 GHz Wi-Fi mesh links between nodes.

Ruckus is a new supplier for O2 and is providing equipment only for street-level Wi-Fi rollouts, said Franks. For its existing network of indoor hotspots, O2 has been using equipment from Cisco Systems. Altogether, O2 operates some 12,000 Wi-Fi access points in 4,000 locations across the United Kingdom.

"Our research shows that unless you're a captive audience, like in an airport or a hotel with a poor signal, you will not pay for Wi-Fi," said Franks. Therefore, O2's new focus is to make its Wi-Fi offerings free to all end users in order to encourage use. The gratis service can be both ad-supported and venue-supported.

"What we're trying to do is build value into the venue," said Franks. O2 believes it can drive engagement between customers and businesses such as cafes and retailers by offering data analysis, reporting and other usage insights in addition to mobile advertising and also mobile wallet functionality.

This is a departure from the operator's initial forays into Wi-Fi, which began in 2007 and involved partnerships giving its premium cellular subscribers access to hotspots run by partners The Cloud and BT OpenZone. The relationship with The Cloud has since been dissolved, said Franks.

He emphasized that O2 has "no intention whatsoever" of blanketing huge areas of London or any other city with Wi-Fi. "What we see is an opportunity in very focused, high-profile, high-data usage areas--where it's relevant--to overlay Wi-Fi for additional capability," he said.

For more:
- see this Ruckus release
- see this O2 release
- see this Cambridge Broadband release
- see this GigaOM article

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