Possible relief for cellular capacity crunch

* In-building wireless architecture taps Ethernet for local backhaul

Mobile WAN operators are battling in-building coverage and network capacity problems that have generated a spate of unfavorable press. Start-up SpiderCloud Wireless, though, has emerged from stealth mode this week with an alternative in-building wireless platform it says can alleviate these problems for mobile operators' enterprise customers.

The company's Enterprise Radio Access Network (E-RAN) system mimics the enterprise Wi-Fi system architecture for building licensed indoor cellular networks. It essentially creates a self-contained mini version of the carrier's macro network indoors while supporting roaming and handoff between indoor and outdoor networks as users roam.

To achieve this, SpiderCloud's design puts a SmartCloud Services Node controller in an enterprise's wiring closet and distributes active SmartCloud Radio Nodes (SCRN) across one or more floors or a whole building. Each SCRN reuses spectrum to supply its own full-strength capacity, and the existing Ethernet network backhauls the wireless traffic.

The system is intended for use by operators who will deploy managed wireless services to enterprises by installing the SpiderCloud equipment on their customers' premises and managing it remotely. Operators who offer such services will be "putting the intelligence of the [operator's] core network right into the enterprise,"says Akshay Sharma, director for Gartner's carrier network infrastructure group.

The wireless carriers have been tinkering with various alternatives for boosting in-building voice signals and offloading the sudden volumes of 3G data generated by today's smartphones, aircards and dongles. Distributed antenna systems (DAS), used in concert with a picocell or other type of base station supplying the licensed signal source, are established in the largest of enterprises. They have thrived there because operators are frequently inclined to donate the base station in return for guaranteed increased cellular usage revenues.

Femtocells have been tested and successfully installed in some small indoor locations (residences and business sites up to 5,000 square feet). "But they have capacity issues," Sharma says. A femto supports "only a handful of concurrent calls and there are issues with remote management and end-to-end [quality of service]," he says.

Also, what about all the enterprises sized in between the smallest sites that can use femtos and the multinational corporations with DASs? And what about data traffic?

SpiderCloud, with executive management hailing from the likes of Cisco, Flarion Technologies, Juniper Networks and Qualcomm, is aiming to handle both voice and data inside the buildings of the forgotten enterprise masses. The company says that with its E-RAN system, mobile operators can deploy, control and manage High-Speed Packet Access, Long-Term Evolution and Wi-Fi wireless networks in any enterprise customer site with an Ethernet network. This avoids having to build a cabling infrastructure for a DAS and the interference problems that multiple femtocells can cause as coverage and capacity requirements grow.

SpiderCloud says its wireless platform, currently in beta with at least one European operator and slated to commercially ship in mid-2010, integrates not only with mobile operators' OSS and billing systems, but also with enterprise customers' IP PBXs for four-digit dialing, single-number reach and PBX feature extension to mobile phones.

By requiring no client software, the E-RAN network extends enterprise customers' voice and data applications to any standard handset or computing device, says Ronny Haraldsvik, the company's vice president of marketing.

The usual caveats apply when it comes to a start-up offering up a whole new solution to an industry-wide problem. Does the technology work? Will the company endure?

But Peter Jarich, service director at Current Analysis, says the most significant obstacles will be getting mobile operators to embrace managed services and convincing enterprises to trust them.

"I completely see [the E-RAN] as a contender for solving capacity and in-building coverage problems," he says. "But the whole concept of operators coming into the enterprise will be the biggest hurdle."

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