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Small-cell chip, network rollouts point to a diverse future

New products from Ruckus and chip maker Broadcom highlight the variety of tools coming for different settings

By , IDG News Service
February 25, 2013 10:07 AM ET

IDG News Service - In Star Wars terms, the small cells that mobile carriers and vendors will be talking up this week at Mobile World Congress are more like the odd-couple androids R2-D2 and C-3PO than like their foes, the Empire's phalanxes of identical storm troopers.

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"Small cells" as a trend is being used to describe both small cellular base stations and carrier Wi-Fi access points (APs), which covers a lot of gear. But those products will be as varied as the different jobs they'll be asked to do. Small cells are carriers' big hope to make subscribers' apps run fast on the busiest streets in town, keep thousands of users online at an arena concert, and give enterprises strong wireless service throughout a corporate campus, among other things.

As a result, small cells can't all look and act the same. They'll be smaller or larger, smarter or dumber, less or more weather-sealed, and based on different technologies, depending on their purposes. Some will even be able to change their stripes in the future.

Big names including Cisco Systems and Nokia Siemens Networks have already talked about the new small-cell products they'll be showing off at MWC, and all are offering an array of different sizes and types of gear. On Monday, Ruckus Wireless will join them, introducing an outdoor Wi-Fi AP and a product that lets carriers bolt together an AP and a cell for mounting on light poles or other outdoor fixtures. Meanwhile, Broadcom will unveil chips designed to power a wide range of small cells expected to ship in volume later this year.

Small cells have to be different so they can work in different settings. In most cases, carrier Wi-Fi will usually stay indoors and small cellular base stations go outdoors, even according to Ruckus, which has built its name on wireless LANs. Complicating that a little, cellular and Wi-Fi may show up in the same place to serve different needs. Ruckus is depending on that with some of its offerings.

Unlike Cisco and some other vendors, Ruckus favors bolting a cellular radio and a Wi-Fi AP together rather than making a special cell to go inside its AP. That's the idea behind the SmartCell 8800 platform it's introducing at MWC. The 8800 puts both components in the same unit for mounting on a site such as a lamppost, with Ethernet connecting the Wi-Fi and cellular halves of the device, said Steve Hratko, Ruckus's director of carrier marketing. The 8800 can use the more spacious 5GHz band on the Wi-Fi radio to backhaul both systems if there are no wires to the site.

This bolt-on approach will make it easier to build "neutral host" setups, where the network owner rolls out all the small cells for a given area, Hratko said. Some governments require this because they don't want lampposts cluttered with multiple carriers' cells. With the 8800, carriers could either share the Wi-Fi radio or each put their own cells in alternating 8800s, taking advantage of the fact that cellular has a longer range than Wi-Fi, Hratko said. The 8800 is due out this quarter.

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