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Wi-Fi, small cells could disrupt mobile

The new network gear may open doors for equipment makers and service providers

By Stephen Lawson
March 1, 2012 02:50 PM ET

IDG News Service - The rise of mixed mobile networks of Wi-Fi, small cells and traditional base stations, a major theme of this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, may change the competitive landscape of both service providers and equipment vendors.

Numerous infrastructure vendors, including major suppliers such as Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson as well as smaller and newer players, introduced small base stations for use inside buildings and in outdoor spaces that are dense with cellular users. These will complement the traditional macro cells typically found on cell towers and roofs, which can cover entire neighborhoods.

Though carriers have used smaller radios such as picocells in the past to aid coverage indoors, those have been relatively expensive, specialized devices, planned and installed by carrier engineers, that often use an in-building DAS (distributed antenna system). The new generation of base stations, including femtocells already deployed in many homes, are intended to be less expensive and closer to mass-produced consumer electronics. Wi-Fi is also poised to play a bigger role in mobile networks, both in hybrid small cells and through new standards for making access points act more like cells.

Like other new technologies, going back to the Internet and cellphones themselves, these small network elements and tools for making better use of them could disrupt both the network gear business and the market for mobile services, according to analysts and some in the industry. More competition should mean more options and lower prices for service providers, and ultimately for consumers. But there are constraints on new players, and it's too early to know how successful the emerging players may be.

The Small Cell Forum, an industry group promoting femtocells and other new types of network-edge equipment, envisions a small-cell industry that would look more like the Ethernet LAN ecosystem than current cellular infrastructure business. The Forum has published APIs (application programming interfaces) that define consistent interfaces between the components of small base stations.

Today's macro base stations tend to be specialized designs rather than standard hardware made from common types of parts, said Simon Saunders, chairman of the Small Cell Forum. Likewise, the established vendors of cellular equipment often use their own interpretations of standards for signaling between the components of a network, he said. That model needs to change because smaller cells need to be made in larger numbers, at a lower cost.

"Macro cells only get produced in their tens or hundreds of thousands, and right from the beginning, we've known we needed to add triple zeros to that in the world of femtocells," Saunders said. "It becomes proportionally more important to take the steps to allow reusability of parts."

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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