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Better Together: 4G Small Cells and Carrier Wi-Fi

A recent survey revealed that tier-one mobile network operators expect 22 percent of all additional data capacity added during 2014 to come from Wi-Fi offload, according to the Wireless Broadband Alliance.

By 2018, Wi-Fi offload is predicted to contribute 20 percent of additional mobile data capacity -- plus a further 21 percent will come from small cells with integrated Wi-Fi.

These findings demonstrate how important data offload is to mobile network operators, accounting for an average of 20 percent of data traffic, up to 80 percent in densely populated areas such as transport hubs and cafes. Within homes and businesses offload levels are 50 to 60 percent.

Meanwhile, as worldwide mobile broadband traffic reaches 200 Exabytes per year, network operators deploy 4G LTE or LTE-A, plead for spectrum, and try to manage usage through policy controls and subscription pricing.

The physics of mobile broadband radio do not follow Moore’s Law of digital scaling, so network operators are ready to address the physical realities of small cells, according to the latest market study by ABI Research. Nevertheless, the question remains -- why not deploy carrier-grade Wi-Fi with the small cells?

Industry advocates are calling for more spectrum, and with HotSpot 2.0 gaining traction, mobile network operators should consider unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum and small cells with carrier grade Wi-Fi as part of their portfolio.

"Wi-Fi is an integral part of the smartphone and tablet experience," says Joe Hoffman, practice director at ABI Research. "And, operators will do well to make carrier Wi-Fi a part of that experience."

Mobile Operators, led by top-tier firms such as China Mobile and AT&T are incorporating Wi-Fi solutions in their HetNet architectures and many other operators will follow.

The added capacity and incremental economics of incorporating Wi-Fi into a HetNet portfolio are almost self-evident. This research highlights both infrastructure and specialist vendors and their approaches to small cell and Wi-Fi integration. Additionally, the discussion includes the challenges facing integration and their solutions.

Deploying a small cell with an integrated Wi-Fi solution is part of an overall strategy that operators will find maximizes the investment return from small cells. These additions leverage the investment of small cell deployments and require an incremental CapEx to add Wi-Fi into the solution mix.

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