Underneath the mobile technology buzz at Mobile World Congress 2013 about expanding LTE deployments, and phasing in even faster LTE-Advanced networks later this year, is the strengthening market in operator-based Wi-Fi services.
3G and LTE subscribers are responsible for huge increases in data traffic. But both end users and cellular operators are increasingly relying on Wi-Fi for data, video calls and even voice communications. The mobile industry is embracing products and standards that eventually will shuffle users automatically between cellular and Wi-Fi connections, and make Wi-Fi a more "cellular-like" option.
[FROM THE SHOW: Hottest products at Mobile World Congress 2013]
In Barcelona this week, members of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) are showcasing a cluster of demonstrations: small cellular base stations that also have integrated Wi-Fi radios, automatic offloading of cellular data calls to available Wi-Fi networks, and the "Next Generation Hotspot" features.
NGH is based on the Hotspot 2.0 specification of the Wi-Fi Alliance. The basic idea is creating a set of standards, interfaces, and specifications for hotspots that let devices find and connect automatically without having to enter user names and passwords, that are highly secure via SIM authentication and end-to-end encryption, and that are much more reliable.
NGH adoption will also support Wi-Fi roaming, analogous to cellular roaming.
So far, a dozen WBA members have completed a pilot "network assessment" phase that creates a common terminology and common metrics for members to describe and characterize their Wi-Fi networks to each other. The assessment clarifies a host of technical issues that have to be addressed to set up roaming agreements between different operators: what types of security the network handles, what customer care functions it offers, billing and invoicing procedures, and the like. That data provides a foundation for adding or changing network characteristics so that roaming agreements can actually be implemented by the operators, says Tiago Rodrigues, program director at the WBA.
"Operators can see what stage they're at," he says. "And by looking at the different compliance levels, see which operators are using the same charging model, for example."
The next step is to formally launch the WBA's Interoperability Compliance Program and open it to all members. The members range from huge carriers and service providers to much smaller regional players and Wi-Fi vendors focused on vertical markets, such as serving five-star hotels. The compliance program will level the playing field for all Wi-Fi providers regardless of size, which will have the benefit of making "cellular-like" Wi-Fi more widely available in many more venues.
The WBA is working in tandem with the operator industry group GSMA to align the next generation hotspot framework "so we don't create two entirely different processes," Rodrigues says.
WLAN vendors are investing more in creating and expanding a new class of Wi-Fi gear: "carrier grade." This week at MWC, Ruckus Wireless and Aruba Networks both announced products and programs aimed at operator Wi-Fi networks, ranging from 900Mbps outdoor access points, to massively scaling WLAN controllers, and reference designs for carrier deployments.
Ruckus also showcased its SmartCell 8800, which bolts together a cellular radio and Wi-Fi access point - cabled together via Ethernet -- for mounting on a lamp post, with a 5GHz Wi-Fi radio for wireless backhaul if needed.
Chipmaker Broadcom announced a development platform that manufacturers can use to build small cells with simultaneous 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi capability. It's based on the XLP-208 processor that the company got when it acquired NetLogic last year, and it can incorporate other Broadcom chips depending on the manufacturer's needs. The XLP-208 is a multithreaded processor that can carry out extra tasks, such as monitoring for interference, in separate threads. The development platform is due for volume production in the second quarter.
Cisco, the dominant enterprise Wi-Fi vendor, is introducing a standalone 3G small cell, a 3G module that can be added to its carrier Wi-Fi access points, and a backhaul router that's designed for use outdoors in combination with public small cells. It's also announcing Cisco Quantum, a new software architecture that lets carriers collect and mine real-time network data to improve performance and develop new services.
On the network side, a variety of new products are intended to give operators the ability to analyze Wi-Fi network data to tune and optimize connectivity for subscribers as they do for cellular links.
WeFi formally launched User Experience Topology (UXT) software in conjunction with the cumbersomely named WeFi enhanced Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (or "WeANDSF") application. The latter collects and analyzes data on local Wi-Fi hotspots, the kinds of traffic and other information via mobile clients running the WeFi Pro application. UXT models and visualizes this real-time data, revealing performance and coverage issues that can be targeted cost-effectively.
Partnerships form the basis of simplifying and improving the Wi-Fi connection experience for end users, and integrating that experience more closely backend carrier services.
SOLiD and Stoke announced the "GameChanger Neutral Host Wi-Fi Offload Solution" aimed at wireless operators and venue owners, to shift data traffic from cellular to high-capacity Wi-Fi networks. The package combines Stoke's Wi-Fi eXchange Multi-Tenant Session Director, which aggregates traffic from any brand of Wi-Fi access points, then authenticates, meters and routes the traffic to the Internet (or to local content or advertising services, distributors or cellular partners) with SOLiD's Infinity Access Optical Network Transport, which creates a scalable, high-capacity, low cost-per-bit fiber WiFi network infrastructure.
Another partnership deal involved Alvarion, with its WBSn line of carrier-grade, outdoor access points, and Aptilo, with its Aptilo Service Management Platform (SMP), an application that manages all aspects of a carrier Wi-Fi service, usually including Aptilo's gateway product. The Alvarion access points pull 802.1X credentials from a Wi-Fi-connected smartphone's SIM card, and hand it off to the Aptilo software, which handles authentication and passes the relevant data to the operator's mobile core. The entire transaction is fully encrypted and fully automatic: no user intervention is needed.
Alvarion executives say the impact of such automated Wi-Fi connectivity is dramatic. One airport customer deployed the product and "overnight 50 percent of the [data] traffic was offloaded to Wi-Fi."
Aptilo and Stoke announced a similar partnership.
The integration of cellular and Wi-Fi is moving into the component level on devices. This week SkyCross announced a single, tunable antenna structure that can support both Wi-Fi and LTE (and LTE-Advanced) across all the available frequencies (essentially, it's adding Wi-Fi support to the VersiTune-LTE product announced in January). In effect, SkyCross is doing electronically what analog TV owners used to do manually with the "rabbit ears" antenna: fiddling with the configuration until you got the best possible signal, explains John Marshall, chief marketing officer for Skycross.
For smartphones and tablets, that means a smaller, simpler and cheaper antenna package.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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