Hotspots and Standards

Cisco followed up on Chambers’ vague comments about small-cell support with an announcement of its own Hotspot 2.0 WiFi roaming products, particularly a gateway designed to manage small-cell connection into a mobile network.  The move comes as network equipment vendors work hard to address the changes in networking being driven by the increased emphasis on mobile broadband.

As I noted earlier, it’s pretty obvious that increased use of mobile devices for video, something that tablet deployment will certainly encourage, generates a major cell congestion problem for operators.  The problem is unique in that it tends to focus congestion on areas where users can take a moment to look at something, and so it creates a highly uneven bandwidth demand gradient.  Traditional cell coverage plans have focused simply on having every area in range of something, and in many cases the expansion to broadband was planned based on the presumption that cell patterns would be relatively consistent but capacity per cell would increase.  Now we know that cell demand doesn’t increase uniformly, but rather focuses on specific places.  WiFi and femtocells are approaches to increase capacity in locations where users would be expected to congregate.  And feeding these cells, which could be ten to twenty times more numerous than current cells, might be the largest packet connectivity mission in all of metro networking, so getting traction here is important.

Traction is easy to come by if you happen to have a RAN and roaming system in your bag of tricks, but much more complicated if you don’t.  Cisco of course fits in the latter category, and so WiFi is a good way to establish a position in the “new-cell” business without having to buy up radio network companies.  The strategy may be particularly useful given the fact that in the tablet space the great majority of devices don’t come with 3G/4G radios at all, and so can be used only in WiFi mode.  I think that this could drive an eventual shift in the market toward the use of WiFi rather than femtocells, and the Hotspot 2.0 standard could support even a commercial alliance of hotspots with billing and roaming.

There’s still the question of how carriers will make money in this new world, and how they’ll manage new services that would presumably be their incremental monetization hope.  Juniper will be talking about a three-element mobile profit strategy later in the show, one that’s based on security, open programmability, and symmetry in upload/download.  There are no real details yet on this, or how it would be tied into Juniper’s MobileNext strategy; financial analysts didn’t get anything further at the Juniper event targeted at briefing them.  I think that security is a strong issue for mobile, but it really has to be addressed in the context of creating a feature-composition community or mobile cloud.  I don’t know if that’s what’s being proposed here; we may find out on Thursday.

The operators are still struggling with their own perspectives on mobile broadband and services.  A Light Reading story today talks about DT’s concern over the lack of standards that define the linkage between OSS/BSS and infrastructure.  This particular area has been the domain of the TMF, and I’ve noted before that the TMF (and to be fair, all standards bodies) tend to move at  a pace that makes glaciers and turtles seem positively hasty.  My own view is that the problem here is less with the specific OSS-to-network interfaces and more with the broader question of how you operationalize next-gen mobile services whose competitors will be cloud-based offerings from Apple and Google.  Look at the classic OSS/BSS approach and you see something that simply cannot scale to consumer-service levels, nor deliver functionality at a competitive cost point.  There’s a carrier coalition, the Next Generation Mobile Networks group (of which DT is a member), that seems to be trying to drive progress, but I’ve seen the operators do that before and fail to move the ball much.  The notion that RFPs might be issued in 2015, as the article suggests, doesn’t pose much threat either to standards-writers or vendors.  Are there other pressures behind the scenes?


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