Building Wifi and small cell communities

26 September 2013 | David Swift

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David Swift

Blog Author | Alcatel-Lucent, Senior Marketing Manager


Data traffic continues to grow inexorably, with the predicted global hourly increase measured in terabits and the mobile networks creaking under the strain.

Cellular traffic is forecast to increase by a factor of 25 times by 2016. The type of data traffic is also changing, becoming more bandwidth and latency intensive.

Once considered a threat, Wifi is now coming to the rescue of the mobile operators. Smartphones and tablets, devices that were “traditionally” cellular, now represent 56% of all Wi-Fi hotspot connections worldwide. In the US, 90% of tablet traffic goes through a Wifi connection. In fact, 65% of cellular traffic worldwide could be carried over Wifi.

Today, Wifi and cellular small cells are being used to build cost-effective HetNets (“heterogeneous networks”) that use all possible access technologies to improve coverage and capacity.

Wifi offers the mobile operator an additional – and less costly – way of adding coverage and capacity to the network. By deploying Wifi along with small 3G and LTE small cells, the operator can significantly lower their Total Cost of Ownership per bit. Indoor Wifi can also provide higher bit rates and better quality of service than cellular macro cells, as cellular signals are not good at reaching indoor high-density areas.

As capacity demands increases, it may also be necessary for operators to offer quality Wifi simply as a customer retention strategy. By building their own Wifi networks, cellular operators can also tap into a big market for seamless connectivity for non-SIM enabled devices, such as tablets and laptops – a collateral business benefit.

In the US, AT&T is deploying Wifi networks in city parks, the fastest-growing locations for Wifi. AT&T offers use of its Wifi hotspots to its fixed as well as to its mobile subscribers, thereby adding value to its propositions. Some of these hotspots, such as the New York City park ones, are free for anyone to use, thus building brand value.

Most international travellers like to use Wifi as it is cheaper than roaming charges. AT&T has expanded its Wifi network internationally, providing access to international hotspots for its subscribers.

Last year, there were 2.7 billion connections made on AT&T’s Wifi network and 80% of those connections were made by AT&T mobility subscribers. This is more than double the number recorded in 2011. There was also three times more mobile device traffic – over 5.2 billion MB – exchanged on its Wifi network in 2012.

Small cells and Wifi are the most effective tools for increasing capacity density. Both small cells and Wifi deliver, on their own, lower cost and greater efficiency.

Cost also saves on site preparation, since the integrated small cell usually uses a single backhaul and power source for both technologies. One box also costs less to install and maintain than two boxes.

There are further benefits of a Wifi integrated small cell. One box on a lamp post is more aesthetically pleasing than two boxes. There are some places, such as London, that only allow one box to be installed per lamp post. In this case, the operator needs a single integrated small cell that supports both technologies.

And let us not forget the users. Some users just want to use Wifi, others just want to use LTE and others want to use both. An integrated small cell lets users use their devices their way, making them happy with their service and with their service providers.