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Small-cell, Wi-Fi backers advancing their technology

Standards and hardware enhancements on display at Mobile World Congress should make the equipment more useful

By , IDG News Service
February 23, 2012 08:05 PM ET

IDG News Service - Wi-Fi hotspots and small cellular radios could make life easier for both consumers and mobile operators, and powerful backers are lining up this week to show how they can maximize that potential.

With next week's Mobile World Congress expected to put the spotlight on these new, hyper-local network elements, vendors and industry groups announced developments this week to make them more capable and interoperable.

Fast-growing mobile data use is driving demand for equipment that can cover indoor spaces and better serve crowded public places. Wi-Fi access points specially designed for public hotspots offload traffic from cellular infrastructure, and small cells allow carriers to reuse their licensed frequencies for greater capacity. Now the two types of radios are converging, with Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent and other vendors announcing multi-radio strategies this week.

Major carriers are signed on for further development of Wi-Fi hotspots, judging from trials disclosed on Thursday by the Wireless Broadband Alliance. AT&T, BT, China Mobile, NTT DoCoMo, Orange and other large operators around the world have participated in trials of NGH (Next Generation Hotspots), a specification designed to make it easier for mobile subscribers to join and use Wi-Fi hotspots.

NGH is a counterpart to the Hotspot 2.0 device specifications promoted by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Both are intended to eliminate the sign-on screens and long lists of nearby networks that users often need to traverse to get on a public Wi-Fi system. They aim to let users join the networks automatically, with authentication through the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) or other method.

The trials tested the mechanisms in NGH for finding and choosing networks, authenticating users and establishing secure connections. They also addressed movement from one operator's network to another, with equipment from multiple vendors.

Mobile operators are fully committed to Wi-Fi as a complement to their cellular networks and will probably build out the new, more accessible hotspots more quickly than they deploy small cells, said Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar.

In fact, consumers may see carrier Wi-Fi grow out in much the same way early cellular networks did, he said. It's in the service providers' interest to be able to offer smooth roaming between one hotspot and another, just as it benefitted them to be able to send subscribers onto another carrier's cell where they didn't yet have coverage.

However, the mobile operators may not be as keen to establish international roaming on each others' hotspots, Schoolar said. Letting their subscribers use Wi-Fi hotspots in another country would mean giving up the high rates they charge today for international cellular roaming. "There's a lot of money in that roaming stuff," Schoolar said.

The WBA said it will trial more advanced features of NGH in the second half of 2012 and expects to see the first deployments of NGH within the next year.

The small cell's role could grow even larger if technology disclosed this week by Intel and infrastructure maker Ubiquisys makes it into carrier networks. On Wednesday, Ubiquisys announced add-on computing and caching modules developed with Intel for its hybrid cellular and Wi-Fi access points.

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