Soaring demand for data is boosting the case for Wi-Fi integration in heterogeneous networks as a means for operators to ease the burden on their cellular networks, and offer subscribers guaranteed levels of service.
The theory is simple. Embedding Wi-Fi into a heterogeneous network allows operators to use the network in conjunction with 3G and 4G networks. The network steers consumers to the best radio access technology available based on real-time analysis of traffic
While the ability to smoothly move subscribers between radio access technologies is one clear benefit of Wi-Fi integration, it is not the only one. Mobile operators can also use the technology to boost coverage in areas where their cellular networks are weak, such as indoors.
Andres Torres, strategic marketing manager for South East Asia and Oceania at Ericsson, notes the low output power of Wi-Fi equipment, combined with its use of the 5-GHz frequency, offers hundreds of MHz of additional spectrum, making Wi-Fi “a perfect technology to use for both indoor and outdoor short range deployments.” He also notes that a growing number of devices now incorporate Wi-Fi chips, providing operators with additional subscriber opportunities beyond the obvious smartphones and tablets.
The growing availability of devices can only add to the current surge in demand for mobile data. Ericsson’s annual Mobility Report, published early June, shows mobile data traffic hit just under 1,600 petabytes in 1Q13, double that of 1Q12, and predicts traffic of at least 10 exabytes per month in 2017 – the majority of which will be video traffic.
ABI Research also predicts surging data traffic, noting the figure rose 69% year-on-year in 2012. It forecasts traffic will hit 23,000 petabytes this year, and at least 131,000 petabytes in 2018.
Jake Saunders, vice president and practice director for core forecasting at ABI Research, says mobile operators have several options to handle the growing data traffic, however, he notes that by end 1Q13 “only a handful” had committed to a small-cell strategy incorporating Wi-Fi hotspots and 4G LTE base stations. Those carriers are mostly based in Asia Pacific, with Softbank, NTT DoCoMo, SK Telecom, and KT among those pursuing a “comprehensive small cell strategy”.
Informa Telecoms & Media principal analyst, Dimitris Mavrakis, adds Vodafone UK to the list, noting the firm began trialing small cells combining 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi in March. He predicts public access small cells in busy urban areas will become “one of the defining mobile network trends in the coming years,” and that vendors that succeed in the market “are going to win the lion’s share of small cell revenues”.
Recent research by firm for the Small Cell Forum shows the number of installed small cell units now stands at close to 11 million, and forecasts the number will hit 92 million in 2016. It also tips the value of the small cell market to hit $22 billion by 2016.