The company is calling Tuesday's announcment lightRadio Wi-Fi, but for the moment, it has more to do with a Wi-Fi card on the 7750 than with the little cubes of last year's lightRadio announcement.
The idea is to have the network move a user from wireless LAN to 3G to 4G depending on what's available and which connection seems the least congested. The 7750 would become the gateway, the point where the network shunts traffic to one core or the other, and the handoff would include secure authentication onto the Wi-Fi network.
The decision about when to hand off is handled by a new control module added to the 5780 Dynamic Services Controller, AlcaLu's policy and charging rules function (PCRF) system. AlcaLu calls this feature the Automatic Network Discovery and Selection Function (ANDSF).
Finally, lightRadio femtocells and Metrocells are going to get Wi-Fi added as an option, but not until at least the fourth quarter of 2012. The enhancements to the 7750 and 5780 are due out in the second quarter.
Why this matters
Wi-Fi has become a bigger part of mobile operators' plans, thanks in part to initiatives such as the Wi-Fi Alliance's Hotspot 2.0. "Mobile operators are talking about Wi-Fi as trusted access and therefore on a par with 3G, where previously it's been considered a risk and not carrier-grade access," says Gabriel Brown, an analyst with Heavy Reading .
That trend might also explain Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC)'s rumored interest in BelAir Networks Inc.
Putting this function near the wireless packet core is a new idea. The alternative today is to have the handset deal with the handoff, which is a difficult model to scale and also cuts the operator out of the loop whenever Wi-Fi is invoked, Brown says. So, operators wouldn't prefer that.
Users would get some benefit, too. For one thing, smartphone-based handoffs secure the Wi-Fi authentication but not the data you send across the network afterwards, Brown says. A network-based handoff could take care of that.
More about melding the Wi-Fi and cellular networks:
- Ericsson Sizing Up BelAir Buy for Wi-Fi Push (Registration required.)
- Stokin' Up Wi-Fi's Operator Cred
- Ericsson Preps New Small Cells
- MWC 2011: The End of the RAN as We Know It?