Small-cell, Wi-Fi backers advancing their technology

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

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.

The modules, based on Intel Core and Atom processors, are designed to perform application processing themselves in order to reduce backhaul traffic and boost performance for subscribers. They are expected to have SSDs (solid-state disks) of 40GB to 80GB. Though there can be ample computing power available from the core of a mobile operator's network, it may make more sense to carry out some functions at the edge of the network, said Keith Day, vice president of marketing at Ubiquisys.

For example, small cells with the add-on modules could cache frequently requested data, perform virus checking or deep packet analysis or do video encoding and decoding, he said. Doing any of these in the core means more data traversing the network.

"The cloud is a long way from mobile users, and that extra time it takes to go back and forth means, ultimately, battery time," Day said.

Intel commissioned Ubiquisys to develop the modules, which will be demonstrated at Mobile World Congress and available in the second quarter, Day said.

Also on Wednesday, two mobile infrastructure organizations moved to help developers write software that uses small cells' special capabilities. The Small Cell Forum (SCF) and Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) announced an agreement under which the OMA will develop API (application programming interface) standards for applications that take advantage of small cells. Vendors in the SCF, which was known until this week as the Femtocell Forum, will be able to make sure that APIs are compatible with their products, the groups said.

Because they cover a smaller area than traditional macro cells, small cells can deliver more useful information about the location and availability of mobile device users, Gartner analyst Akshay Sharma said.

In a real-world example, Japan's NTT DoCoMo offers an application that uses a home femtocell to detect whether a child is home based on the presence of that child's phone within range of the femtocell. Small cells could also be used along with data mining to divine some characteristics of the people in a given area, such as income or shopping history, Sharma said. As long as this was done with the proper permissions and safeguards, it might be used to determine what kinds of ads should be displayed on a screen, he said.

Mobile World Congress runs Feb. 27 through March 1 in Barcelona.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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