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In a sure sign that the cellular industry is getting serious about Wi-Fi, telecom networking giant Ericsson (s eric) is buying BelAir Networks, adding its high-performance outdoor hotspot technology to its portfolio, sources told GigaOM. The deal could signal a big shift in the mindset of the big wireless vendors, which have always favored their own specialized and expensive cellular technologies to meet growing mobile data demand rather than more generic but much cheaper Wi-Fi tech.
We contacted BelAir and Ericsson for confirmation, but spokespersons from both companies declined to discuss the deal. “Ericsson does not comment on rumors or speculation,” Ericsson spokesman Jimmy Duvall said via email.
As smartphone data usage explodes, consumers have begun turning to home, office and public Wi-Fi to bring their handsets online, taking advantage of fast speeds while bypassing the data caps on their mobile plans. There are some exceptions, such as AT&T(s T), but most U.S. mobile operators have been reluctant to incorporate Wi-Fi directly into their networks, preferring instead to keep customers on their 3G and 4G networks, where they can collect data revenues and maintain control of the network connection. With big vendors like Ericsson on board, though, that attitude could be changing.
Ontario-based BelAir has spent the past several years carving a niche for itself as an outdoor Wi-Fi vendor to cable providers and has even made limited progress with wireless operators. Its high-capacity long-range access points are used extensively in the outdoor hot zone networks of AT&T, Cablevision (s cvc) and Time Warner Cable. Earlier this month Bright House Networks turned on a 2,000 hotspot network across Florida using BelAir gear.
BelAir is by no means alone in this market. Competitors Ruckus Wireless and Israel’s Wavion have carved out much bigger outdoor Wi-Fi network niches, each landing big deals in Europe and Asia, where Wi-Fi is gaining much broader acceptance as supplementary mobile broadband technology. Ruckus scored the mother of all Wi-Fi deals last year when KDDI began rolling out a 100,000-hotspot network in Japan.
Ericsson’s interest in BelAir, however, may stem from some unique elements in the vendor’s product design. BelAir has been successful with domestic cable operators because it can hang its Strand access point directly off the fiber-coax strung across fiber utility in any city, making it very easy for a cable company to get Wi-Fi up quickly and cheaply. Second, BelAir has been expanding from its metro Wi-Fi roots into cellular technologies. It has begun combining Wi-Fi with cellular to create dual-mode access points, extending the coverage and capacity of the mobile operators’ primary voice and mobile broadband network while also offering a cheap means of offloading Internet-bound traffic.
From Ericsson’s perspective BelAir’s technology may be an easy way for it to break into metro Wi-Fi without cannibalizing its core product line. By slotting its own cellular radios into BelAir access points, it can sell operators both Wi-Fi and cellular upgrades in a single package.