Small cell technology products today are used to fill in gaps where traditional cellular has problems working -- such as between downtown buildings that aren't reached by traditional cell towers, and in many indoor settings.
The technology hasn't advanced as quickly as expected when it was first introduced with high hopes two years ago. Nonetheless, there are plenty of big name small cell providers, including Qualcomm, Ericsson, Nokia and Cisco, each with a different specialty.
To date, the problem with small cell adoption is at least partly due to issues related to getting the devices deployed and connected to backhaul--the wired connection to the rest of the wider network.
One of the biggest small cell deployments in the U.S. is the use of MicroCell small cell devices inside of homes. The device, which looks like a typical WiFi router, is offered by wireless carrier AT&T and equipment provider Cisco. MicroCell is essentially a 3G wireless extender that acts like a mini cellular tower to extend the AT&T cellular network inside a home.
The MicroCell devices, also termed femtocells because of their small size, "have proved to be a great success," said Keith Day, director of marketing for the Cisco service provider group in an interview on Tuesday.
Cisco offers a Universal Small Cell 5310 (the top device) that provides cellular service to an indoor location and can be clicked onto a Wi-Fi access point (the lower device) such as the Aironet 3600. Workers can connect their smartphones and devices to the combined Wi-Fi and cellular access point.
Day predicts that Cisco's early success with MicroCells will be followed by an explosion in small cell sales over the next 12 months, as the company starts focusing on bringing the technology to indoor workplaces.
Specifically, Cisco wants to connect 3G and LTE cellular networks to Wi-Fi access points that are already widely deployed in enterprise facilities. The networking giant proposes to primarily deploy small, low-cost devices called Universal Small Cells that can be clipped on to Cisco's Aironet 3600 and 3700 Wi-Fi access points (see photo).
Cisco is already the global leader in deploying enterprise-class Wi-Fi access points, having shipped over 2 million such devices in 2013 alone.
Attaching one of the Universal Small Cell (USC) modules to an existing Wi-Fi access point will help simplify such deployments because power and wired backhaul, and even space for the device, are already provided with the existing access point, Cisco noted in an online brochure.
Cisco announced the USC technology in June. At the time, Cisco said it would sell a USC 5000 module plug-in as the clip-on device, or a USC 7000 standalone access point.
Enterprise customers will be able to pick a mobile operator, which will then use Cisco's USC cloud-based software to activate and configure the USC to the carrier's specifications.
What Cisco has done with AT&T already with MicroCells in homes "is just a drop in the bucket for the potential" of USC, Day said.
Cisco has USC pilot programs in companies around the world, many of which plan to talk publicly about the rollouts in the coming year, Day said. The company calls the program of marketing and providing the USC devices to enterprises Cisco Small Cell Enterprise Select.
Cisco has named two technology resellers, World Wide Technology and Block Solutions, as its partners in the rollout.
One of the benefits of USC to individual users is that they will be able to connect to either cellular or Wi-Fi seamlessly and automatically without needing to find a Wi-Fi hotspot and logging on, Day said. Called Hotspot 2.0 or Passpoint, these automatic connections were demonstrated at the last Mobile World Congress in Barcelona by 10 different cooperating cellular carriers and Wi-Fi providers.
"When you come into range, the technology logs you on and it is secure, predictable and fast," Day said. "LTE gives the performance of Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi looks like cellular. Suddenly, we feel like all the pieces are coming together for the first time."
Behind the modular technology of USC devices being deployed to enterprises, Cisco will be providing a broad mobility strategy for wireless carriers that maintains centralized networks that manage macro cells and small cells together so that data loads are balanced. The software will be self-learning, to help adapt to particular systems and circumstances, Day said.
Day didn't divulge the cost of the USC devices, but predicted they will be a fraction of the cost of deploying macro cells, which are larger devices often used to boost a wireless signal in a building or campus.
One category of existing small cell technology used inside of buildings to boost wireless signals is called Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) which are provided by several large vendors such as Ericsson and SpiderCloud. "They have been around for some time with mixed results," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.
"Cisco seems to be using USC to make the whole complex process much simpler by pre-designing small cells to fit in Cisco networks already installed in the enterprise," Gold said. "It's a good idea overall, but still requires a technical installation process that needs to be handled by experts."
Cost concerns have prevented some large companies from implementing small cell technologies, and it's not clear how much USC will lower those costs, Gold added. "Cisco hasn't explicitly talked about lowering the cost barrier," he said.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at Twitter @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
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