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Exclusive: Ruckus completes Nokia Siemens’ HetNet puzzle

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Nokia Siemens Networks(s nok)(s si) laid out an ambitious heterogeneous network strategy at Mobile World Congress earlier this year, unveiling Flexi Zone, a fabric of hundreds of small 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi cells that behaves like a single cell site. NSN, however, was missing one crucial piece in its new Liquid Radio framework: Wi-Fi. GigaOM has learned NSN has now filled that hole, signing a contract with Ruckus Wireless to integrate with and resell its high-performance Wi-Fi gear.

Ruckus vice president of corporate marketing David Callisch confirmed the deal in an interview, saying that NSN planned to announce the tie-up in the coming days. The deal is particularly significant for NSN because archrival Ericsson(s eric) recently rounded out its own HetNet portfolio by acquiring BelAir Networks, Ruckus’s primary competitor in the carrier Wi-Fi space. NSN and fellow big wireless vendor Alcatel-Lucent(s alu) either needed to partner with a Wi-Fi company or buy one outright, and Ruckus was the prime candidate.

“When Ericsson took BelAir off the playing field, a lot of people came to us,” Callisch said. “NSN was the most aggressive, but it’s not an exclusive agreement.”

As mobile operators get Wi-Fi religion, the handful of infrastructure vendors specializing in outdoor metro-Wi-Fi gear have started getting a lot of attention, and lately Ruckus has been separating itself from the pack. The Sunnyvale, Calif.,-based vendor has landed one of the single-largest mobile offload contracts to date, a 120,000-access point network with KDDI in Japan, and U.K. hotspot provider The Cloud is using Ruckus gear to blanket London with Wi-Fi ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

What’s more, Ruckus’s profile seems to be increasing at the expense of BelAir/Ericsson. Its London deployment supersedes an existing BelAir rollout. On Tuesday Ruckus plans to announce at CTIA that it has become Time Warner Cable’s(s twc) second wireless vendor, which until recently built its public Wi-Fi hotspots solely with BelAir gear. Callisch said it will supply Time Warner with its strand-mounted access points, which connect directly to the cable lines from which they’re hung. He added that Time Warner will also use Ruckus gear to expand its hotspot network into indoor public spaces like malls and stadiums, a market Callisch said Ericsson doesn’t currently serve.

Ruckus is exploring IPO options and just closed a $21.7 million funding round, but those may just be diversions. NSN’s partnership may be just the first step to an acquisition. If NSN isn’t interested, its competitors may well be: independent metro-Wi-Fi vendors are becoming scarce, given that Israeli mobile broadband vendor Alvarion bought up Wavion (s alvr) in November.