Can Wi-Fi pave the way for indoor small cells?

All four of the U.S. nationwide mobile operators are placing billion-dollar bets on 5G and hoping that consumers will upgrade to 5G-capable smartphones when the technology becomes available. But what will happen to those smartphones inside buildings, where most data use takes place? Will users be able to enjoy the new high-speed networks inside buildings?

Carriers know that if they intend to monetize 5G, keeping customers on the network indoors will be a big help. For years, they have worked to convince building owners to shoulder more of the cost of in-building cellular systems, but many building owners view Wi-Fi as a sufficient solution. Now a leading provider of Wi-Fi offload solutions sees carriers using Wi-Fi to pave the way for 5G small cells.

“We see operators making use of Wi-Fi as the tool for getting a foot in the door,” said Aptilo Networks CEO Paul Mikkelsen. He said the same hardware that supports Wi-Fi access points can often support small cell radios as well: “You can even finance it by selling the managed Wi-Fi service to the venue. That is a very powerful way of taking on the small cell challenge.”

Mikkelsen said cable operators have been the most aggressive when it comes to using Wi-Fi as a small cell calling card. He said Comcast, Charter, Cox and Suddenlink all understand the opportunity to use Wi-Fi hardware as a platform for future small cells. He said AT&T and Sprint are also exploring the idea.

Sprint has already announced the addition of SpiderCloud LTE small cells to its in-building portfolio, creating an opportunity for its customers to leverage Wi-Fi access points to add better cellular connectivity. SpiderCloud, which is now part of Corning, makes a small cell radio node that attaches to a Cisco Wi-Fi access point. Customers also need to install the company’s small cell services node to manage the small cells on the enterprise local area network.

“This innovative LTE small cell literally clips onto existing Cisco Wi-Fi infrastructure and can be deployed in less than 30 minutes, providing a very cost-effective way to rapidly improve indoor service,” said Robert Kingsley, director of small cell and Wi-Fi development at Sprint.

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Even inside buildings that have adequate LTE service, connecting to 5G networks may be a challenge, especially when those networks use higher frequencies. Millimeter wave spectrum cannot carry signals as far as the lower frequencies used for LTE networks. As carriers build 5G networks, they may start to invest in more in-building than they have in recent years.

But funding a deployment is just part of the challenge. Carriers also need access to the buildings they want to serve.

“You have to be strong on your value proposition of getting in the door,” said Mikkelsen. “Some operators have grasped that and understood that and they are running with that opportunity.”