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Cisco bridges Wi-Fi, cellular nets

At Mobile World Congress this week, Cisco unveiled products designed to provide cellular-like roaming among Wi-Fi hotspots, and disclosed deployments among several wireless service providers.

Cisco rolled out an end-to-end Wi-Fi hotspot infrastructure that the company says supports Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA)-approved technologies and Hotspot 2.0 specifications established by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Cisco also announced the availability of a Small Cell Gateway for operators to manage subscriber and service information across licensed 2G/3G/4G LTE networks and unlicensed Wi-Fi/femtocell networks.

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Cisco is working with several wireless service providers, including AT&T, BT, PCCW, Portugal Telecom, Shaw Communications, Smart and True, to deploy the new "small cell" infrastructure and deliver services that span licensed and unlicensed radio technology. The small cell rollout is designed to help operators address capacity constraints from spectrum limitations, scale coverage, provide roaming across heterogeneous access networks, and address the explosion in mobile traffic.

Based on its own research, Cisco says the next five years will see an 18-fold increase in the amount of mobile data traffic and a 3X increase over fixed data traffic. And the number of mobile devices will outnumber the amount of people on the planet by then too.

Due to physical limits and availability of licensed spectrum, existing cellular -- or macro radio -- networks alone are incapable of sustaining the growth in mobile traffic and devices, Cisco says. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi connectivity is becoming more ubiquitous through devices like smartphones, tablets, televisions and automobiles.

Eighty percent of the time users access mobile devices, they are inside buildings, Cisco says. Service providers are looking for ways to offload traditional cellular traffic to help ensure coverage and alleviate capacity constraints from limited availability of licensed spectrum.

These are the issues Cisco's new small cell Wi-Fi infrastructure is intended to address. Small cells are both licensed radio -- low-powered indoor/outdoor base stations with limited range -- and unlicensed radio, carrier-grade Wi-Fi technologies integrated together as a network service offering.

The Small Cell Gateway for Wi-Fi/femtocell deployments is an integrated packet core for macro radio, Wi-Fi and femtocell antennas. The WBA/Hotspot 2.0 is available as a software upgrade to most of Cisco's 12 million installed access points. It is intended to provide seamless roaming and secure authentication between operators.

PCCW and True have deployed the new hotspot software. Trials are underway at BT and Portugal Telecom, and Cisco has partnered with Google and Samsung to develop and market it.

AT&T has been deploying Cisco's femtocell products since 2009 and now has the largest small cell network in the world, Cisco says. Shaw Communications and Cisco have an agreement to deploy a Wi-Fi network in Western Canada to provide broadband wireless access. Shaw will also conduct a technical trial of Hotspot 2.0 using Cisco's Service Provider Wi-Fi solution.

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