Cisco brings giant roaming network to wi-fi

IT industry bellwether Cisco has announced its own small cells, which it claims will make the most of licensed and unlicensed spectrum. The idea is to take the pressure off 3G and 4G networks as data usage booms, putting “nomadic” devices on blanket wi-fi networks instead.

Along with that, Cisco is saying its latest product will help introduce the industry to its Next-Generation Hotspots. The company has been working with the Wireless Broadband Alliance to develop an industry standard, which Cisco hopes will bring about roaming-like capabilities to wi-fi networks. 

Its Small Cell Gateway will help the industry on its way. Cisco will sell the technology to network carriers to integrate 2G, 3G and 4G LTE licensed networks with unlicsensed wi-fi and femtocell networks. Cisco hopes this will lead to a seamless end user experience across different networks.

Murali Nemani, senior director, service provider mobility at Cisco, explained the standard to TechEye: “If you turn on your smartphone anywhere, it just works. You can use it in any part of the world, you don’t have to type in anything, it just happens. We want to bring that to the wi-fi environment, so all these hotspots, enterprise or public, can be brought onto this seamless roaming wi-fi network.” Cisco access points will be backwards compatible with the existing 12 million Cisco devices. “We think we can bring this to all new products,” he said, “and a large part of the existing portfolio that is already in the field.”

“What’s interesting is the growth of wi-fi,” Nemani pointed out. “If you look at tablet traffic, somewhere north of 60 percent are using wi-fi toaccess content. 80 percent of all of our access for web content is happening in some inbound location, a nomadic lifestyle rather than a mobile lifestyle.”

Cisco would call the announcements pretty big news. According to its Visual Networking Index, worldwide mobile data traffic is going to increase 18-fold over the next five yearrs, hitting as high as 10.8 exabytes per month by 2016. It will largely be driven by streaming video, so robust and readily available networks are important. 

Cisco’s Small Cell Gateway and Next Generation Hotspot initiative also lead into another trend the industry is seeing: Bring Your Own Device. The company reassures skeptics that its technologies are highly secure and work on an app level, like Good Technology’s software, so that devices know where they are connected and which data it is secure enough to access. 

Nemani agrees that there is a certain level of security and policy information that needs to be looked at in the enterprise. “Their VPN will not access corporate data on an untrusted envrionment,” he said. “When they get access to wi-fi, they are jumping on with the right level of security and authorisation.” Outside of that environment, not so much. Cisco thinks it’s a sales opportunity for carriers who would be able to extend security policy information and VPNs as well as making sure an entire campus is covered – and extend that security across a global footprint.

Although operators worldwide have traditionally been very competitive about spectrum, Nemani believes that they will realise the long-term benefits over short-term financial advantages. As the come under more strain, mobile operators are looking for a way to offload capacity challenges. “That is their motivation to go towards wi-fi,” Nemani said.

Countries like India – where a spectrum auction spiralled into scandal – will also look towards wi-fi, Nemani thinks. “Getting access to spectrum is very difficult, so what we are seeing is a rollout of wi-fi as a credible alternative to mobile broadband services, without having to depend on allocation.”

There are two scenarios, Nemani says. “In the US,” he said, “we’re saying we just don’t have enough spectrum – a spectrum shortage. Then, in developing countries, there may be spectrum policies that do not allow it to be delivered correctly. If you really want to deliver compelling experiences with better coverage and quality, this becomes a very nice way – the same way your cellphone turns on and it just works.”

The products is shipping from today. In terms of deployment, it is happening in Asia and there is a conversation about trials in Canada. Now, the option to use the technology is in the hands of the operators. “Depending on which part of the world has progress from the operators, the next twelve months will be a very important timeframe,” Nemani said.