Managing wireless network capacity

Wireless operators are facing a daunting challenge--they have a finite amount of spectrum and a subscriber base with a growing appetite for mobile data. At the CTIA Wireless 2012 conference earlier this month in New Orleans, wireless operators spoke often and with increasing intensity about the need for more spectrum to accommodate this growing data demand.

Although the FCC is working on freeing up spectrum through incentive auctions and rules that will allow mobile satellite spectrum to be used for terrestrial use, it will still take time for new spectrum to be made available for wireless operators.

Likewise the National Telecommunications Industry Association in March announced that it had found 95 MHz of prime spectrum in the 1755-1850 MHz band, which the agency said could be repurposed for commercial wireless use and shared with carriers. But it will also likely take years for this spectrum to be cleared for commercial use.

In the meantime, operators are desperately searching for technology solutions that can make the most of their existing network capacity. Small cells offer some relief for capacity issues. These low power mobile network nodes can help balance the network and eliminate coverage gaps. Earlier this month a Sprint Nextel executive said the carrier now counts 600,000 femtocells in its network--a dramatic jump from the 250,000 femtocells Sprint said it had deployed as of March of 2011. 

But Sprint isn't alone. Speaking at the FierceWireless Path to 4G conference earlier this month, AT&T Lab's (NYSE:T) Senior Vice President of Network Technology Kris Rinne said that 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.

Likewise, Wi-Fi offloading offers immediate relief but operators need to be careful to make sure the user experience moving between the cellular network and the Wi-Fi network is seamless and secure. In February, the Wireless Broadband Alliance announced that it had completed the first round of its Next-Generation Hotspot effort and that more features would be coming. The company also recently teamed with the GSMA to align on roaming.

Despite these developments, none of these solutions is likely to make the capacity problem go away. Experts say there is never going to be enough spectrum to handle the growing demand.

FierceWireless took a closer look at the technologies and pricing innovations that operators are using to help stretch the capacity of their existing networks and ensure customers get the best possible data experience. Check out our "Managing Wireless Network Capacity" ebook here. --Sue