The suppliers of mobile carrier networks are still thinking small when it comes to making speeds fast and signals strong, and this year's Mobile World Congress next week will again host introductions of Wi-Fi access points and small cellular base stations.
They hope to prepare mobile operators for growing demand for capacity from smartphones, tablets and other devices with the new network elements, which are designed to complement existing macro cells on towers and rooftops. Small cells let carriers reuse their scarce spectrum in busy areas, while Wi-Fi takes data traffic off those frequencies completely.
Actually rolling out these mixed networks and making them invisible to the subscribers who use them will be more complicated than building new radios, so reality has lagged behind the industry's enthusiasm, analysts say.
"A lot of this stuff was just overtalked before products became available to start with," Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar said. "There's been a humongous hype factor around small cells," though not with carrier Wi-Fi, he said. Still, Schoolar expects product shipments and early commercial deployments of small cells to start picking up in the second half of this year. There's no urgency now, but continued growth in mobile use will make so-called hetnets, or heterogenous networks, necessary in the future, Schoolar believes.
As carriers such as AT&T prepare for planned small-cell rollouts and Wi-Fi integration, vendors are making rollout and management part of their pitch.
On Tuesday, Nokia Siemens Networks said its product push at MWC will include new small cells and a package of offerings for integrating Wi-Fi into mobile operators' networks, both tied in with the company's Flexi Zone heterogeneous network architecture.
The company will unveil new micro and pico cells, as well as smaller femtocell units for enterprises and indoor public spaces. One of the femtocells is for 3G HSPA+, while the other will be NSN's first femtocell for 4G LTE. Both will feature "plug and play" deployment and provisioning to get service up and running quickly, the company said in a press release.
NSN's new micro and pico cells can be managed using Flexi Zone, a platform for managing as many as 100 cells in one area as a single network element. That means the new products can be rolled out first as standalone cells and then integrated into a larger "hot zone" when the carrier needs to deploy more small cells nearby.
The company will also showcase its capability to help service providers build and use Wi-Fi in their networks. The new set of offerings, which it will call Smart Wi-Fi, will include access points and gateways, planning and deployment services, device provisioning to bring subscribers onto Wi-Fi, and software to shift users between Wi-Fi and cellular based on policies. It will also include elements of Customer Experience Management on Demand, which in this case will let carriers offer free or automatic Wi-Fi to select users.
Industry standards for merging Wi-Fi with cellular networks are taking shape, but implementing them across the industry will take time, Ovum's Schoolar said. The key one is ANDSF (Access Network Discovery and Selection Function), part of the family of standards from 3GPP (Third-Generation Partnership Project), which oversees LTE. NSN, like some other vendors, is trying to pave the way for Wi-Fi integration among its own products in advance of the standards, Schoolar said. However, there's no reason to believe NSN is trying to circumvent the standards, and the company has said it will adopt them when it can, he said.
Also at MWC, Nokia Siemens will show off new features for its Liquid Radio Software Suites, which are designed to make 3G and 4G networks use spectrum more efficiently. New features for the software suite for GSM will cut by 35 percent the amount of spectrum needed to run a GSM network, according to NSN. The spectrum saved could be refarmed for use with LTE, the company said.
Nokia Siemens CEO Rajeev Suri said at last year's MWC that his company was preparing for subscribers to consume 1GB per user, per day, by 2020. That will require more spectrum, more efficiency and more cells, most of them small cells, Suri said. Since last year, the company has made progress coming out of a major restructuring begun in 2011. In the final quarter of last year, NSN reported a year-over-year revenue gain of 45 percent.