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BelAir stakes its claim in small cells

The big vendors are promoting small cells as the technology of the future, but carrier Wi-Fi vendor BelAir networks is already engaged in live trails

Wireless vendors have spent the last few months furiously unveiling their small cell strategies, proclaiming a future network where a layer of tightly packed cells below the macro network feeds the growing hunger for mobile data capacity. But while Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) talks up lightRadio, Nokia Siemens Networks (NYSE:NOK, NYSE:SI) gushes over Liquid Radio and Huawei promotes its microcell as the technologies of two years hence, one small vendor might have already laid claim to the first small cell network deployment in the U.S.

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BelAir Networks is running a live trial of its Strand Picocell (CP: BelAir hanging picocells off the cable plant), an outdoor access point it has deployed in over 20,000 nodes in the U.S. in its usual Wi-Fi configuration, but in this case is being used as a 3G small cell to alleviate data traffic on the macro network. BelAir chief technology officer Stephen Rayment said he couldn’t reveal the operator (except to say it was a U.S. Tier 1 carrier), the location of the network or even whether it used CDMA or UMTS radios. But Rayment would say that the trial is carrying live commercial traffic over 25 nodes within a dense cellular network, using a leading cable operator’s outdoor hybrid fiber-coax lines as backhaul. Those nodes are among and between the cells in the carrier’s macro network--making it one of the first implementations of a small cell architecture to be used to add capacity to a network rather than as spot coverage solution.

Small cells as a coverage solution have been implemented all over the world, whether through indoor pico-cells, distributed antenna solutions (DAS), or more the growing use of femtocells in homes and businesses. But as mobile data traffic explodes, the industry has begun to look at small cells in a different way. Rather than use them as a means to get cellular signals into hard-to-reach nooks, small cells are now being seen as the building block of a network underlay beneath the macro umbrella, providing loads of capacity to high-traffic areas the macro network simply can’t support.

Alcatel-Lucent has introduced what it calls a metro-cell and is developing a new modular architecture called lightRadio that scales an integrated radio and antenna down to the size of a Rubik’s Cube (CP: ALU’s new building block architecture). Nokia Siemens Networks is developing a similar architecture with a miniature cell called Race (CP: NSN pours out Liquid Radio). Huawei is pursuing an all-in-one integrated baseband-radio-antenna unit it calls simply the Microcell (CP: Huawei doing small cells the old-fashioned way).

BelAir’s Strand Pico may be bulkier than some of the new designs, and it may not have the cellular network expertise of the big wireless vendors, but according to Rayment it has one key advantage over the big network equipment providers: loads of experience building small-scale networks. BelAir was one of the principle suppliers of the mesh Wi-Fi networks that went into municipal wireless builds before those projects fizzled out. Since then it’s switched its focus to carrier Wi-Fi, building Cablevision and Time Warner Cable’s (NYSE:TWC) huge outdoor Wi-Fi networks in the northeast as well as becoming a key supplier for AT&T’s (NYSE:T) hotspot network.

The topology of outdoor small cell networks is remarkably similar to the topology of a Wi-Fi mesh network, Rayment said. Both small cells and Wi-Fi hotspots need to be at street level, integrated into the urban landscape. They need to be highly reliable and their backhaul needs to be highly redundant. BelAir has already solved all of these problems, while the larger network vendors, having focused so long on towers and rooftops, are just getting started, Rayment said.

In fact, carrier Wi-Fi can be viewed as the predecessor of small cells. Operators already are leaning heavily on Wi-Fi to offload traffic from the macro mobile broadband network. AT&T has even begun building hotzones in high-traffic pedestrian areas such as New York’s Times Square and Chicago’s Wrigleyville solely to address network congestion. As small cells make their way into the network they’ll likely go into the exact same spots as those Wi-Fi access points (BelAir has built its Strand to support both Wi-Fi and mobile data traffic for that reason).

Navigating the pitfalls of a dense urban deployment is BelAir’s forte. The Strand was created precisely to solve the problem of a dedicated backhaul to a high-capacity node, as it hangs right off of the cable plant. But BelAir has built other solutions to handle other deployment scenarios. It has designed transmitters that can be buried in underground vaults connected to underground fiber or fiber-coax lines. The radio waves are then reflected upwards and outwards into the street. It has cells that can be mounted on the top of light poles and on the sides of buildings. And where a fiber or coax line can’t be found, BelAir can use its wireless mesh technology to create a fully redundant, highly reliable, short-hop backhaul network, Rayment said.

Here, an operator might push back. When carriers deploy backhaul they tend to rely on dedicated fiber or copper, and if they’re forced to use a wireless technology, they opt for licensed microwave, not the unlicensed interference-prone bands used by Wi-Fi mesh. But Rayment said operators attitudes toward Wi-Fi are changing in the same way their networks are evolving.

“The pressures the operators are facing are forcing them to rethink some of these solutions,” Rayment said. “Carriers laughed at the notion of Wi-Fi as an access technology. Look where we are today.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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