Cisco’s entrance onto the small cell scene

CiscoYou’ll know of Cisco from their dominance of Internet technology. The company that makes the plumbing through which most of the world’s internet traffic is routed, with products ranging from set top boxes, modems, routers through to the mobile packet core networks that power 3G and 4G networks. Many enterprises, both large and small, rely on Cisco technology for their day-to-day operations. The company is now making a play for the small cell market.

With a strong foundation in Carrier Wi-Fi and Enterprise networks, they are looking to expand that presence now that Wi-Fi is being accepted by Service Providers as a legitimate – some say essential – component of their radio technology portfolio.

An existing position in the small cell industry

Many in the telecom industry will also be aware that Cisco delivered one of the largest femtocell deployments in the world for AT&T, with more than half a million 3G microcells in active use today. What is perhaps less apparent is Cisco’s strong position in Carrier Wi-Fi, which provides robust wireless service using Wi-Fi in public areas. I was keen to find out how Cisco plan to address the growing demand for small cells and asked Mark Grayson, the Distinguished Consulting Engineer who leads Cisco's mobile architecture strategy, to explain.

“Cisco has been involved in Service Provider Wi-Fi (also called Carrier Wi-Fi) for over a decade. It really started back in 2001 when we found carriers, for example Voicestream in the US (which subsequently became TMobile) and France Telecom/Orange in Europe, taking our 802.11 gear and delivering public Wi-Fi services. We quickly developed specific solutions for those carriers, for example by 2004 Swisscom was live with an end-to-end EAP-SIM based Wi-Fi service using our equipment. Over the years, we’ve enhanced and evolved our solution, learning through experience in the field.

“About two years ago we recognized that future Service-Provider Wi-Fi adoption may well be hampered by the lack of an industry agreed view of Carrier Wi-Fi architecture; there was no Femto Forum equivalent for carrier Wi-Fi. We believe the WFA/WBA (Wi-Fi Alliance/Wireless Broadband Alliance) HotSpot 2.0/Next Generation Hotspot initiative will be a success, and have been heavily involved in the Hotspot 2.0 standard development, as well as the more recent GSMA task force.

“Many of the successful attributes and best practices of the GSM ecosystem have been incorporated into the initiative, such as SIM card authentication, operational guidelines, roaming agreements and interoperability testing. The vision is to enable a ‘frictionless’ customer experience, where Wi-Fi capable devices can discover compatible hotspots and connect to a secure, protected environment using their existing mobile account.

"However, we thought that the specifications would not meet the full requirements alone because whilst the specifications cover important authentication aspects, they do not define a complete end-to-end system architecture for Carrier Wi-Fi.

“To meet that need, Cisco turned to the then recently published 3GPP Release 8 architecture which for the first time defined how to integrate non-3GPP access networks into a common core network. We felt it suited the whole service provider Wi-Fi market better, positioning Carrier Wi-Fi as a small cell solution that could be easily integrated into existing mobile networks.

“Our carrier Wi-Fi system architecture based on 3GPP is now well down the track into the delivery stage. We were one of the first to have certified Passpoint/HotSpot 2.0 product, with PCCW of Hong Kong being one of the first in commercial use. It’s been integrated at a number of operators and connects into Cisco’s EPC (Evolved Packet Core). Feedback from these deployments has allowed us to identify a number of enhancements which are now being developed.”

Why the strong interest in Carrier Wi-Fi today?

“The strongest demand is coming from the spectrum challenged service providers who are finding it difficult to meet growing data traffic levels from their customers. For example, Indian 3G networks have each been allocated only 5MHz of spectrum.

“We’ve also seen investment from Cable MSOs (Multiple Service Operators) who are branching out. Unlike mobile network operators, they don’t need to acquire expensive licensed spectrum to offer the service.

“Many operators have specific locations which are suffering from network meltdown, such as public stadiums – known as the “poster child” of high traffic demand. Cisco has assigned a whole team focused specifically on designing Wi-Fi solutions for stadiums. The team supported BT at the Olympic Park in the UK this year, delivering 1,800 Wi-Fi Access Points for serving games operations, athletes and public access.

“Our success in Carrier Wi-Fi is reflected in the growing revenue for this part of the business and large increase in number of deployments. As a result, Cisco is increasing its investment with further resources to support growth.”

Indoor or Outdoor?

“In the long term, data traffic is expected to grow much more significantly indoors than outdoors. Cisco already has a strong presence indoors, both within enterprise and retail premises as well as residential homes. That’s quite different to the established RAN (Radio Access Network) equipment vendors, who have mainly outdoor cellsites.

“Many of the existing locations can be upgraded to provide a Carrier Wi-Fi Service, with separate SSIDs being used for internal and external use, effectively allowing the same physical Wi-Fi hotspot to appear as multiple virtual hotspots with different identities and access rules depending on the user.”

What happens where several network operators want to use Wi-Fi in the same space?

“Again, we can use the same shared set of hotspots with multiple SSIDs. These can be assigned to different host network operators with the traffic routed to separate destinations. This is a much more co-ordinated approach than deploying multiple independent hotspots which contend with each other for the available spectrum resource.

“This issue is a also key challenge for licenced radio operation by cellular networks, where the new MOCN (Multiple Operator Core Network) standard allows the same small cell to connect to several network operators. In many ways, this is trying to emulate the Wi-Fi multi-tenant solution and will be important to avoid a plethora of small cells from different operators in the future.”

And finally, how does Cisco sell into the Service Provider market?

“We sell today directly to the Service Providers and large enterprises, and indirectly through resellers into smaller enterprises. Sometimes Service Providers resell Cisco solutions as a managed service. We have the resources to deliver Carrier Wi-Fi solutions around the globe, building on our experience gained from a variety of successful customer engagements.

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