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Ericsson CEO: We’re ready for the carrier Wi-Fi boom

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A year after its acquisition of BelAir Networks, Swedish mobile equipment giant Ericsson(s eric) has fully integrated its high-powered outdoor Wi-Fi technology into its wireless networks. Ericsson’s first commercial small cells will come with BelAir’s technology embedded, letting mobile operators build high-capacity cellular and Wi-Fi networks side by side, Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg told GigaOM in an interview.

You can think of small cells as Wi-Fi access points that use dedicated mobile spectrum: Just like Wi-Fi access points, they’re short-range wireless nodes designed to pack a lot of bandwidth into a limited area. But unlike Wi-Fi, small cells link to devices directly through their cellular radios.

By putting combo small-cell/Wi-Fi nodes up in heavily trafficked areas both indoors and out, would give mobile networks a capacity double bonus. The cellular aspect would allow networks to handle many more device connections and provide faster speeds over those connections, while Wi-Fi could be used to offload bulk traffic — such as streaming video and file downloads — that would normally congest cellular systems.


Vestberg said with a few exceptions Wi-Fi would become pretty much a standard feature in its small cells gear, starting when the first networks emerge in the fourth quarter, Vestberg said. Not all carriers will use the capability, but Ericsson hopes to seed future networks with nodes that can easily support the technology. Depending on the configuration, carriers might be able to upgrade to Wi-Fi by slotting a board into their small cell chassis. In some cases that upgrade might even be as simple as sending a software patch over the network.

Cramming Wi-Fi into a small cell really isn’t that difficult. In fact, BelAir had already tackled the reverse of that problem when Ericsson bought it last year. BelAir builds big outdoor metro-Wi-Fi networks (AT&T(s t) is among its customers), and in 2011 it started embedding small cells into Wi-Fi access points in field trials.

Ericsson, however, is doing something a bit more complex than just putting Wi-Fi and cellular radios in the same housing. It’s integrating Wi-Fi directly into the cellular network, eliminating the problems that invariable result when moving between the two networks today.

Ericsson’s system will be able to manage “handover from macro to micro, micro to Wi-Fi and back to micro or macro all over again,” Vestberg said. This is what Ericsson and other vendors often refer to as the heterogeneous network, or HetNet. Instead of just shunting all Wi-Fi traffic onto the closest broadband connection to the internet, HetNets will manage Wi-Fi just like cellular nodes.

Wi-Fi logoWhy is that important? Uninterrupted access for one — that video stream won’t die when your device moves off cellular and try to negotiate a Wi-Fi connection. The network can also use Wi-Fi more intelligently. It can keep more secure communications on the cellular network, while routing bulk data to Wi-Fi. Since the network knows the relative data loads on both Wi-Fi and cellular nodes, it can make better decisions on which network to place a subscriber – there’s no point in shifting a customer onto an overloaded access point if the cellular network has capacity to spare. Also, if you’re driving in a car through the HetNet, it won’t connect you to Wi-Fi nodes, or even small cells, since the it knows you’d be out of range a second later.

These are definitely much more elegant solutions than the Wi-Fi offload we have today. Right now our phones try to connect whenever they detect an authorized Wi-Fi AP — even if it has no internet connection or is overloaded with other users. The HetNet, however, would be able to take advantage of Wi-Fi’s enormous capacity benefits without the hiccups.

9 Responses to “Ericsson CEO: We’re ready for the carrier Wi-Fi boom”

  1. Claus Hetting

    However much I commend Ericsson pushing carrier Wi-Fi into the mainstream of technology options for mobile carriers, I’m not so sure that popping Wi-Fi APs into small cells is more than a marketing proposition.

    Wi-Fi and small cells have vastly different performance both in terms of coverage and capacity – so co-locating these into the same cabinet seems to be not practical at all. It’s indeed hard to see why this should be done at all – except for the traffic steering functions that Ericsson now is pushing. I am also not sure what value there is controlling the Wi-Fi hetnet from the network side – which BTW is not easy as Wi-Fi is not centrally controlled at all (in contrast to cellular networks).

    I think that such solutions will soon be overtaken by a lot more device intelligence and a great deal of other seamless Wi-Fi offload solutions that don’t need to be integrated with anything on the network side. There are a ton of very good options for that. In fact – I believe – that Wi-Fi for service providers will develop independently of the big vendors in cellular because Wi-Fi offload does not require centralized control in the cellular sense.

  2. Samuel

    WiMAX is more close to LTE in the MAC layer so yes, it’s a “better” implementation if you look at it from an engineering perspective. Also HiperLAN/2 was a much more elegant solution, but Wi-Fi was much simpler to implement and hence it took the marketshare 15 years ago.

    Wi-Fi works in 99,9% of deployments with a Distributed Coordination Function which means noone is scheduling traffic or assigning timeslots or frequency uplink/downlink. In LTE, the eNB does this job. In WiMAX it’s the AP. In Wi-Fi it’s “first in, first served”, a clearly best effort access technology and a flood virus in uplink can simply kill a network as there is no mechanism taking care of the effects.

    What makes it fly is mainly the massive footprint in all types of devices, low cost, quite a lot of free spectrum especially @5GHz, the limited range which allows for frequency reuse. As no “real” QoS can be guaranteed in license free bands with a distributed coordination function, you have to rely on over provisioning to get that out of Wi-Fi. Ericsson aims to use Wi-Fi for small cell deployments which makes sense. The shorter the range of a Wi-Fi hotspot, the better the performance. Ruckus, Cisco and other enterprise players always talk about great range as a benefit while it’s actually useless to have high range if you want to achieve good performance. Better to have shorter range and deploy more APs.

    When it comes to the backhaul discussion it’s not so much of a deal. Lots of xDSL and fiber already exist out there. Wi-Fi is a great backhaul technology for Wi-Fi itself and you can also use microwave. LTE base stations are typically given a much higher backhaul pipe than what the eNB can deliver over the air during busy hours, so that backhaul can also be reused for Wi-Fi APs in the same area. And when the LTE load is low, Ericsson makes sure the users are connected to the 3GPP radio network with traffic steering in real time. This is not provided based on radio performance by any other vendor in the market.

  3. attochron

    All this talk of small cells brings that quote to mind with a slightly different twist: ‘On who’s backhaul?!!’ Backhaul’s overloaded now and Tellabs (Tellabs Insight Q2 magazine) and others tell us the network is creaking. Add all those ‘efficient’ small cells everywhere are going to jam backhaul and aggregation nets where fiber’s too costly and RF backhaul is maxed out.

    Has anyone noticed the microwave backhaul order cancellations and maker’s falling stock prices due to lack of sales? Is anyone noticing that fiber is too expensive to bring to more than 30% of MACRO cell sites (Verizon 2011)? Millimeter wave isn’t going to save anyone’s backhaul ‘bacon’ in fact it has just made the leap from ‘wanna be’ backhaul solution to yet another ACCESS technology between user device and the site (WiGIG IEEE standard).

    Disclaimer: our firm Attochron has developed the only Gbps optical wireless backhaul to stay available in all weather for macro backhaul. Note to Ericsson: Call us! Cheers.

  4. Kevin,

    That’s not a good idea indeed. To tell you why, imagine a small cell enclosure housing 3G, LTE & Wi-Fi in one casing. Now 3G works in 2.1 Gig, LTE in 2.3 or 1.8 GHz or may be 700 MHz and Wi-Fi in 2.4 & 5GHz.

    You understand what you are trying to do? You are creating a perfect recipe of chaotic planning of 3 widely different cellular/non-cellular technologies at one location to make it appear. Each one has its criteria in planning network, designing & optimizing.

    Albeit saving costs & making it quite attractive as package, it’s perfect gamble to toy with network planning principles.

  5. Onno ter Wisscha

    …but the question remains: will it be cheap enough to compete with the simpler solutions from the fixed telco’s (cable and DSL providers turning millions of modems into hotspots and filling the gaps with an MVNO deal)