"It will speed the deployment of the small cells in cases where there's Wi-Fi," Rehbehn said. In that sense, Cisco's move into licensed-spectrum small cells is just an expansion of its efforts at extending mobile networks with Wi-Fi, rather than a head-on challenge to the cell establishment.
Outside of enterprises, restaurants, stadiums and other closed areas, small cells are likely to carry the same brands as the big base stations on nearby towers, Rehbehn said.
"It remains to be seen how effectively [Cisco] can go head-to-head with the larger OEMs that own the vast majority of footprint with the mobile operators," Rehbehn said.
The main reason for this is technical, he said: Because macro cells transmit throughout the pockets of space served by outdoor small cells, preventing the two types of networks from interfering with each other is a major challenge. Though there are standards for doing this across vendors, most mobile operators will stick with one supplier just to be safe, Rehbehn believes.
And Cisco, true to the words of CEO John Chambers last November, will draw the line at building small cells, analysts say. "It would be a fool's errand for them to make macros" because that's a mature and slow-growing business compared with small cells, Rehbehn said. By contrast, Cisco sees Wi-Fi as the leading edge of carrier networks. For at least two quarters, its carrier Wi-Fi sales have doubled from their year-earlier pace.
However, Cisco thinks it's destined for more than leading the mobile world into the Wi-Fi era. With many of its routers deployed in the cores of mobile networks, and a growing stable of technologies for managing systems throughout a carrier's infrastructure, Cisco says it can make every subscriber's mobile experience better.
Over the past 18 months, Cisco has spent $1.5 billion on acquisitions to help build up the technology that's going into Cisco Quantum, said Shailesh Shukla, vice president and general manager of the software and applications group in Cisco's Service Provider Mobility division. The result will be an architecture that stretches from the wireless edge of the network into the wired core.
The software will be able to analyze data about what's happening on the network in real time so carriers and other companies can take advantage of it, Shukla said. Among other things, carriers or content providers could sponsor extra data for their subscribers when they are about to go over their monthly caps. But Quantum will also be good for overall performance improvements, such as ensuring a stadium network keeps up with demand as thousands of spectators stream in, he said.