Cisco's small-cell move is focused, but its network aims are ambitious

The company will show off its first licensed small cells along with services software that goes deep into the carrier core

By , IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless

Cisco's long-anticipated entry into cellular base stations will come at Mobile World Congress next week, along with the company's familiar promise of an end-to-end architecture.

Having the dominant vendor of Wi-Fi gear in the cellular RAN (radio access network) business may help to fuse the two technologies into a powerful combination that boosts mobile speeds. But Cisco's more likely to affect indoor cells than those outdoors, where makers of long-range "macro" radios are already well established and pushing smaller cells of their own, industry analysts said.

Cisco's announcement of small cells and an outdoor backhaul platform on Tuesday, just in time for MWC, came after a long, slow climb toward the licensed RAN market in which the company introduced just about everything short of a cell. In addition to gear for the cores and edges of mobile carrier networks, Cisco has been selling carrier Wi-Fi access points, including ones with slots to add cellular radios, and partnered with startup ip.access on home femtocells. Now it's finally adding cells themselves, though not the type that go in towers.

Not just a formula to generate more profit for Cisco, the company's entry is part of a trend that came into the spotlight a year ago with mobile giant Ericsson's acquisition of carrier Wi-Fi vendor Bel Air Networks, Yankee Group analyst Ken Rehbehn said.

"This is a natural next step," Rehbehn said. "It gives the operators a choice. It gives Cisco an opportunity to leverage something that they are very strong at, which is excellent Wi-Fi capabilities for network operators."

On Tuesday, Cisco is introducing a standalone 3G small cell, a 3G module that can be added to its carrier Wi-Fi access points, and a backhaul router that's designed for use outdoors in combination with public small cells. It's also announcing Cisco Quantum, a software architecture introduced on Tuesday that's designed to let carriers get better performance out of their networks and present new types of services and offers based on real-time network data.

Some carriers have been using Wi-Fi for years to take mobile data traffic off their scarce licensed spectrum and offer subscribers higher speeds in crowded places such as coffee shops and arenas. Small cells are designed to do a similar thing in a different way with a carrier's own licensed spectrum, reusing in a small area the frequencies that already travel from cell towers across a whole neighborhood.

Rather than dive in at the deep end of the market with small cells for public, outdoor use, Cisco is wading in around enterprises, an area it knows well. Both of the cells it's announcing on Tuesday are designed to work in tandem with its Wi-Fi gear in enterprises. They'll give users another option for connectivity that they may need based on what device they're using and what kind of radio spectrum is available, according to Cisco.

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