WiFi Continues to Shape the Enterprise Small-Cell Space

Ed Gubbins
Ed Gubbins

Summary Bullets:

  • Recent trends illustrate how influential WiFi remains in the enterprise small-cell space.
  • Small-cell vendors must align their view of technologies, partners and competitors with this dynamic.

As RAN vendors continue with an attempt to kick in the door to the enterprise small-cell market, one of the primary dynamics influencing these efforts is WiFi’s dominance in enterprise environs. This is largely what led Cisco to use its WiFi market footprint to compete in the small-cell space, of course. But, even in late 2015, after years of driving the enterprise small-cell value proposition, some players are shifting their thinking toward an even greater respect for the importance of WiFi in this business. For example:

  • Small-cell vendors and mobile operators alike can now be heard, in some instances, positioning small cells as a value-add to enterprise WiFi networks. AT&T, for example, has mentioned targeting enterprises interested in upgrading their wireless LANs to 802.11ac networks and pitching managed WiFi networks with cellular service added for mission-critical voice (especially where enterprises are open to moving beyond wired desk phones).
  • Last month, Ericsson announced an agreement with HP to integrate its own small cells with HP’s Aruba WiFi technology. The move was somewhat surprising, coming just three years after Ericsson’s acquisition of WiFi specialist BelAir Networks. And it illustrated that even in-house assets don’t negate the power of established enterprise WLAN players and their technology.
  • We’re hearing some vendors and operators shift toward greater interest in using LTE/WiFi aggregation (LWA) in the enterprise rather than license-assisted access (LAA). There may be multiple drivers behind this, including the fact that LAA’s spectral efficiency and mobility management benefits may make it a better fit for outdoor, instead of indoor, networks. But, a likely contributor to this thinking is simple recognition that LWA doesn’t carry with it the same kind of coexistence concerns that LAA has raised in the WiFi community – once again underscoring the importance of the entrenched WiFi ecosystem.

What do these trends mean for small-cell vendors? For starters, three things:

  • Small-cell vendors that also have WLAN businesses need to step up efforts to tie the two together, despite whatever organizational partitions exist.
  • Vendors offering distributed small-cell solutions for medium and large enterprises that haven’t taken a clear position regarding how WiFi fits into the picture need to remedy this issue as soon as possible and communicate this position to the market.
  • Small-cell vendors should strategize around competing or partnering with existing WiFi players. For example, it’s likely that WiFi specialist Ruckus Wireless will expand into the licensed cellular arena at some point, as hybrid cellular/WiFi plays from the RAN crowd gain traction in the market (Ruckus has already hinted at the possibility without much subtlety). Rivals need to understand what such a move would mean for them as a competitive threat, as well as the competitive impact of greater coordination or integration between some rivals’ RAN and WiFi businesses.

Of course, another dynamic illustrated by the above trends is the way that the dividing lines between the WiFi and enterprise small-cells continue to blur. As that blurring progresses, the long-term dynamics in the space become less predictable, and this picture could change much more in the coming years than it has in recent ones.

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