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Small cell device tech set to connect workplace Wi-Fi with 3G and LTE

Matt Hamblen | July 23, 2014
Cisco says small cell technology is primed for explosive growth as it plans to connect 3G and LTE cellular networks to Wi-Fi access points that are already widely deployed in many enterprise facilities.

Small cell technology products today are used to fill in gaps where traditional cellular has problems working — such as between downtown buildings that aren't reached by traditional cell towers, and in many indoor settings.

The technology hasn't advanced as quickly as expected when it was first introduced with high hopes two years ago. Nonetheless, there are plenty of big name small cell providers, including Qualcomm, Ericsson, Nokia and Cisco, each with a different specialty.

To date, the problem with small cell adoption is at least partly due to issues related to getting the devices deployed and connected to backhaul — the wired connection to the rest of the wider network.

One of the biggest small cell deployments in the U.S. is the use of MicroCell small cell devices inside of homes. The device, which looks like a typical WiFi router, is offered by wireless carrier AT&T and equipment provider Cisco. MicroCell is essentially a 3G wireless extender that acts like a mini cellular tower to extend the AT&T cellular network inside a home.

The MicroCell devices, also termed femtocells because of their small size, "have proved to be a great success," said Keith Day, director of marketing for the Cisco service provider group in an interview on Tuesday.

Cisco offers a Universal Small Cell 5310 (the top device) that provides cellular service to an indoor location and can be clicked onto a Wi-Fi access point (the lower device) such as the Aironet 3600. Workers can connect their smartphones and devices to the combined Wi-Fi and cellular access point.

Day predicts that Cisco's early success with MicroCells will be followed by an explosion in small cell sales over the next 12 months, as the company starts focusing on bringing the technology to indoor workplaces.

Specifically, Cisco wants to connect 3G and LTE cellular networks to Wi-Fi access points that are already widely deployed in enterprise facilities. The networking giant proposes to primarily deploy small, low-cost devices called Universal Small Cells that can be clipped on to Cisco's Aironet 3600 and 3700 Wi-Fi access points (see photo).

Cisco is already the global leader in deploying enterprise-class Wi-Fi access points, having shipped over 2 million such devices in 2013 alone.

Attaching one of the Universal Small Cell (USC) modules to an existing Wi-Fi access point will help simplify such deployments because power and wired backhaul, and even space for the device, are already provided with the existing access point, Cisco noted in an online brochure.

Cisco announced the USC technology in June. At the time, Cisco said it would sell a USC 5000 module plug-in as the clip-on device, or a USC 7000 standalone access point.


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