With Wi-Fi poised to become a much bigger part of mobile networks, the leaders in wireless LAN and cellular technology are converging on the same space from opposite directions.
Wi-Fi specialist Ruckus Wireless will debut as a cellular infrastructure vendor at next week's Mobile World Congress, unveiling carrier-class Wi-Fi access points that can accommodate 3G/4G radios, as well as a gateway to manage networks of both types. The ambitious Silicon Valley company will be taking on this role even as the giants of the cellular world launch forays into Wi-Fi. Alcatel-Lucent last week announced a system for users to roam easily between Wi-Fi hotspots and its cellular infrastructure, while Ericsson said Tuesday it would acquire Wi-Fi vendor BelAir Networks.
The Ruckus SmartCell lineup includes a multi-radio outdoor access point and a gateway for managing hundreds of thousands of APs and small cells from different vendors. Ruckus will showcase both at the Barcelona show.
The Ruckus SmartCell 8800 will combine the company's multiple antenna technology with multiple radios, allowing carriers to use IEEE 802.11n for both local data service and wireless backhaul and to add a cellular module for cellular coverage. It's designed to give service providers the flexibility to roll out both types of networks as the need arises in a given location. As demand soars, both may be needed in the same spot, according to Ruckus.
Having both in the same unit can save carriers from having to install multiple pieces of hardware, which can be expensive and time-consuming in public places, such as on city lightpoles, said Steven Glapa, senior director of marketing. Providing all the capabilities of the SmartCell 8800 could take four separate radios, and with some of them sending and receiving three streams of data, that could require 11 antennas at the site, Glapa said. Also, by using 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi to backhaul traffic from the access point to a wired infrastructure, carriers can avoid having to run cables to each access point, which can be a challenge with large numbers of small cells.
The cellular module could come from Ruckus itself, but the company is tapping into more established cellular infrastructure vendors for the parts as well. It will work with whatever cellular company a given carrier customer prefers to work with, Glapa said. Ruckus said it already has deals with service providers outside the U.S. to deploy the SmartCell 8800 and 200. The SmartCell 8800 is expected to ship by the end of this year for US$4,999. An indoor version will come later.
The SmartCell 200, formerly called the Ruckus Wireless Service Gateway, is a rack-mounted server unit that can manage heterogeneous networks of access points and small cells. It's designed to make deployment faster and less expensive than it traditionally has been, the company said. The system can also serve as a services platform at the edge of the network that incorporates functions now found in the core. It will include security, subscriber and policy management, deep packet inspection and other capabilities, Ruckus said.
Ruckus is among many vendors embracing SON (self-organizing network) technology, which allows macro and small cells to coordinate their use of spectrum in real time. A recent addition to the alphabet soup of cellular standards and an improvement on earlier small-cell management standards, SON is designed to overcome interference in networks where there are many small cells for each large macro cell.
SON is one area where a relative newcomer such as Ruckus could have trouble finding a place in networks dominated by more established cellular vendors, said analyst Monica Paolini of Senza Fili Consulting. Though SON is based on standards, it's too early to expect full interoperability, she said. This pains the carriers, which want to be able to choose a specialized vendor for small cells but find it harder to make two suppliers' gear work together, she added.
"Not all vendors are equally cooperative in creating an interoperable SON, because they want to protect their revenue," Paolini said. "For a small cell vendor like Ruckus, they depend on having a SON that is interoperable so they can work with the big guys."
However, to the extent that it can partner with big cellular vendors for the cellular portion of the SmartCell 8800, Ruckus may find a way in to carrier networks, she said.
While some network vendors will buy into Wi-Fi, as Ericsson did, others are likely to partner, Paolini said. Either way, the two technologies will be working in tandem to satisfy demand for mobile data.
"For a long time, the big vendors have tried to stay out of Wi-Fi offload," Paolini said. "Now, they understand they can't stop it."