The days of strolling down a street, smartphone connected to somewhat speedy mobile internet connection, only to have the connection thwarted when you enter a large building, may be numbered.
Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) think that scalable "small cells" are the answer to a vexing building-penetration issue.
For the end user, asking for a Wi-Fi password at every stop-and-call may become a thing of the past if these small cells take off and work as promised.
What are they?
Small cells are distinct from an MNO's macrocells, which are mounted on rooftops and other structures, and are served by a cellular base station. Macrocell antennas are the ones you see dotted around your neighborhood.
Small cells, on the other hand, are (as the name suggests) small and more closely resemble a set of Wi-Fi access points—multiple points, narrowly targeting devices with beamforming.
The small cells are essentially low-power radio access nodes, often with a range of only 10 meters.
Small cells tend to be centrally managed and can be sprinkled liberally around a building interior, thus supplying a Wi-Fi-like stable signal, but with an MNO's cellular service.
For the MNO, the advantages include that it doesn't lose customers to in-building Wi-Fi networks that it doesn't serve, so it can still monetize for service. For the end user, this means no fiddling with smartphone setup menus and asking for passwords.
San Jose-based SpiderCloud Wireless makes small cells and has caught the attention of major MNO players.
América Móvil, Mexico's biggest MNO—and the operator of Mobile Virtual Network Operator StraightTalk in the U.S.—has started to switch-on SpiderCloud Wireless' E-RAN 3G/4G small-cell systems in some buildings.
Verizon Wireless has said it will be using SpiderCloud's system for some 4G small cells in the U.S., and Vodafone will be using the SpiderCloud technology via a Cisco deal, where Cisco is marketing branded SpiderCloud equipment.
The Cisco-branded variants of the SpiderCloud equipment, called Universal Small Cell (USC) 8000 Series, let you "snap-on" the SpiderCloud 3G/4G small cells onto the popular Cisco Aironet 3600/3700 Wi-Fi access points, for example.
Cisco's Policy Suite lets you coordinate Wi-Fi and cellular traffic according to network performance and other variables, including monetization requirements.
Mobile network equipment maker Ericsson is also working on high-capacity indoor small cells. Its live trials go by the name of Radio Dot. Ericsson's Dots weigh just 10.5 ounces.
SpiderCloud's system works best on buildings that are 50,000 to 1.5 million square feet, according to Martha Degrasse, who has written about the América Móvil deployments in RCR Wireless News.
Power-over-Ethernet, combined with a single services node, serves 67 radio nodes in América Móvil's largest installation by Telcel, a subsidiary.
Radio nodes are the access point-like cells. A services node is the control point for coordinating and inter-cell signaling. It stops individual small cells from having to connect back to the MNO's network directly, which slows things down. It also handles other things, like interference management.
Existing Ethernet infrastructure can be used, which helps with installation time.
An enterprise's existing IT infrastructure can be woven into the system. This allows for locally switching data, like Intranets for example, from mobile devices to the LAN as needed.
But the sheer brilliance of small cells is really in the monetization aspect. The easier an MNO makes it for customers to stay on its cellular networks, the more billing it can do.
As 4G proliferates and service becomes ubiquitous, will the end user switch to Wi-Fi in a building to save a few dollars? It's a big question. Will IT bother to install Wi-Fi, ultimately?
But the irony in these installations is that the 4G and the Wi-Fi can be on the same Cat 5 and 6. One is free, and one the end user pays for.
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