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4G World 2012: Getting Small Cells Under Control

Carol Wilson

CHICAGO -- 4G World -- The explosion of small cells in the wireless network promises the ability to give consumers more capacity, using the existing wireless spectrum. But that explosion won’t help wireless operators compete, if they don’t also get the management tools and integration needed to control how their services are delivered over that last network segment.

That was one conclusion of today’s Small Cell Summit, at which a series of speakers and panelists agreed that all forms of small cells -- including unlicensed Wi-Fi -- have a growing role to play but could be a growing headache to operators pursuing the Holy Grail of “Quality of Experience” for their end users.

Six million small cells have been deployed, almost double the number from a year ago, says Andy Germano, VP Americas for the Small Cell Forum Ltd. , which will be formally announcing the new numbers later this week.

The forum’s new chairman, Gordon Mansfield, executive director of small cell solutions and RAN delivery at AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), adds that the critical thing is that “all of these have to be kept under control of licensed network operators, so we can make sure we control interference” and its impact on QoE. Mansfield sees the integration of different technologies and security as two other potential barriers for small cells at the edge of the network.

The Small Cell Forum, formerly known as the Femtocell Forum, is now working harder to represent the wireless operators’ issues, including putting an operator in its chairman seat and adding carrier execs from Asia and Europe as vice chairmen. But as Mansfield made clear in his presentation and on a later panel -- which he shared with Edgar Figueroa, CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance -- the Small Cell Forum is also working with standards bodies, including 3GPP and the WiFi Alliance, to develop the standards and APIs required for enabling integration of services over multiple technologies.

In fact, if the event had another theme, it was the need for Wi-Fi and small cells to be integrated into a solution that enables each to serve its purpose without interference, possibly through partnerships with wireline operators or other entities.

While there was general agreement that Wi-Fi is here to stay, there was also concern about the interference resulting from deployment of too many hot spots and the chaos faced by customers left to navigate the Wi-Fi jungle on their own. Multiple speakers advocated using network intelligence to direct devices to the appropriate small cell or Wi-Fi network based on their location, their application and the current level of network congestion or available bandwidth.

Figueroa touted his organization’s Passpoint initiative, which he says will enable “advance capabilities for auto network selection and auto security” and will leverage intelligence to auto-select network services, provision subscription services and enable roaming.

Without management, Wi-Fi is more of a nightmare, says Robert Riordan, executive vice president and director of corporate development at Nsight , which owns Wisconsin-based Cellcom Inc. , a wireless operator that just finished a successful small cell trial.

“We are about two or three years later than we wanted to be, but we rolled out a small cell on CDMA, underneath a macro cell,” Riordan says. “We’re not as excited about Wi-Fi -- there is way too much unmanaged Wi-Fi out there.”

Even Riordan agreed he would be willing to partner with a Wi-Fi provider if it was a managed service. That’s an option many speakers agreed on -- that partnerships with wireline providers such as telcos, cable companies or wholesalers -- would also make sense for wireless operators and potentially get them around the other small cell challenges. Those include having to widely deploy cells that meet local regulations, and get backhaul capacity to each small cell site.

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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