Use of Small Cells in New Wi-Fi Architectures Will Reshape Wireless Consumption Patterns

Wi-Fi chipsets face brilliant prospects ahead

April 29, 2013 -- The use of Wi-Fi functionality in small cells to ease heavily congested data pipes will be a crafty game changer in wireless networking technology, tying in to the massive market opportunity for Wi-Fi chipsets, according to IHS iSuppli insights from the Mobile & Wireless Communications service of information and analytics provider IHS.

Shipments this year of Wi-Fi chipsets will reach a projected 2.14 billion units, up a robust 20 percent from 1.78 billion in 2012. This year’s anticipated increase continues the impressive run of double-digit growth that started at least five years ago and will persist for three more years until 2016, after which expansion dips to a still-strong 9 percent. By 2017, Wi-Fi chipset shipments will amount to 3.71 billion units.

Overall, approximately 18.7 billion Wi-Fi chipset units will be shipped from 2011 to 2017—nearly all of which will belong to the high-performance 802.11n version. To put that number in context, the entire planet has 7 billion people—which means that Wi-Fi chipset shipments will outnumber the earth’s population by more than two-and-a-half times.

The devices containing embedded Wi-Fi chipsets are many, but mobile handsets stand out in particular. By 2015, nearly 1.2 billion handsets out of a total of 1.9 billion cellphones produced that year will include Wi-Fi functionality. Approximately 70 percent of handsets sold worldwide by then—and well over that figure in North America and Western Europe—will be smartphones with embedded Wi-Fi.

Other prominent devices that will serve up Wi-Fi include headsets, computer peripherals, mobile PCs and tablets.

Also by 2015, some 725 million households worldwide will have a Wi-Fi access point thanks to increases in global broadband penetration. This factor, coupled with the billions of Wi-Fi chipsets that would have been bought by then, presents a remarkable wireless broadband platform primed to spawn new consumer behaviors and lasting services.

All told, the sheer magnitude of its projected growth will make Wi-Fi ubiquitous and spur new opportunities, including the capability for wireless service providers to offload chronically clogged 3G and 4G cellular networks into heterogeneous architectures. Such architectures will involve a combination of macro and micro base stations, coupled with low-powered small cells and enterprise femto cells. This approach overall will reshape the connected world by linking billions of devices with free, high-speed links, IHS iSuppli believes. 

Small Cells to Induce Big Changes

The small cells—also known as metro cells—effectively will be low-power base stations each supporting approximately 100 to 200 simultaneous users. Intended to augment wireless coverage and capacity in dense urban areas, the small cells will likely be installed in public facilities such as malls, railway and subway stations, the sides of public buildings, and on street or traffic lights.

The cells will communicate with the core network through a radio network controller to ensure that available wireless spectrum resources are properly managed and distributed between the macro or micro network and the small cells, maximizing available capacity in the process.

In general small cells will be outdoor solutions that address capacity issues, while residential and enterprise femto base stations will be indoor solutions. Both solutions will coexist alongside each other, as well as with macro and micro base stations and also with Wi-Fi access points—all in order to provide a heterogeneous networking architecture.

By combining the different elements of just such an architecture, wireless carriers can then deploy optimized solutions tailored to the coverage and capacity requirements of networks and their different locations.

For entrepreneurs, intellectual-property firms and wireless providers, the offloading approach also affords them an opportunity to develop a unique “network of networks,” which can deliver seamless handoffs as users move from cellular to high-bandwidth personal networks like Wi-Fi.


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Debra Jaramilla
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