Alcatel offers Unified Network, uses WiFi/Cellular in parallel


On the eve of Mobile World Congress Alcatel showed its hand in WiFi with an announcement of what it calls a new Wireless Unified Network (WUN). It seems to go one step further in the use of unlicensed spectrum than other cellular proponents in that it is happy to keep WiFi in the loop, rather than trying to replace it and sideline it to a single operator.

This diagram goes a long way to explaining one of the uses of WUN, but it leaves a lot unsaid


First off this implies that both radios – LTE and WiFi, are operational at once, no great problem there. Secondly it requires that both network know that they are dealing with the same client device, because the request goes through the cellular network and it has to come back a different IP route and it can only do that if it can tie off the two separate authentications.

Again we know that Alcatel has done this for major US operators, though it doesn’t want to say which ones, clearly one of them is Comcast. And last year it told us that it has this capability of identifying devices from either network – Cellular or WiFi. This also means that it has to know which WiFi networks that client is allowed access to, and here this implies this is at the behest of the cellular operator who is controlling all this.

So Alcatel must deliver log in credentials to the smartphone for the WiFi if those credential s are not on the phone already. Then they can get on with the download, knowing it is being delivered to the right place.

What other cellular supporters have done is to push LTE-U, using LTE in unlicensed spectrum and Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) which is when an LTE signal, that can only be authenticated by one of multiple national cellular operators, is sent over the 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum, normally used for WiFi, when the cellular network is too busy. Alcatel intends to arrive at this point also, and also to repeat the trick it has done in boosting WiFi, but using any spare spectrum an operator has, aggregating it in the same way.

Alcatel is pushing this as a way to boost speeds, and showed off 600 Mbps transfers at the Mobile World Congress show, partnered with Qualcomm, using this system with some of the data delivered over LTE, some over a second piece of spectrum and some over WiFi.

WiFi offload until now has relied on the idea of a policy decision being made for each activity, and then using ANDSF to select the right network for the right activity. Here it is doing much the same except using the two networks in tandem, again policy led, and potentially using both networks at full speed, rather than offloading to one.

Alcatel will then be in a position to facilitate cellco networks doing deals with large owners of WiFi, for instance Comcast in the US and Liberty Global in Europe could each do deals with AT&T or Vodafone, and use the Alcatel software to control what happens.

Mike Schabel, Vice President of Small Cells in Alcatel-Lucent said: “As an industry we have historically treated cellular and Wi-Fi as unique technologies. For example, the industry debates the merits of Voice/Data over Wi-Fi versus Voice/Data over LTE. From a consumer perspective, it should simply be just Wireless.”

To trigger this capability the device owner needs a software update over the internet where such devices that are capable of both cellular and Wi-Fi transmission. It also requires a software update in the network to blend the Wi-Fi and cellular access networks.

In typical homes Alcatel says this WiFi boost can increase download speeds up to 70% and increase upload speeds by an order of magnitude or more, compared to standalone WiFi at the cell edge. We presume that a deal between a cable operator and a cellular operator using this system, could mean that cellular minutes are offered at the WiFi cell edge to speed up downloads, and WiFi could be offered to the cellular network, essentially meaning that it becomes a two way data exchange. In previous WIFi offload models, all the payment and data use has been one way, with WiFi helping the cellular network and not getting anything in return.

Alcatel-Lucent will trial the Wi-Fi boost capabilities in the second quarter of 2015 with commercial availability in the second half of 2015.

Meanwhile Cisco is also making a bid to straddle this cellular WiFi divide, and has come out with an analytics system it calls Mobility IQ, which can provide a cloud Software as a Service, to give performance views across LTE, 3G and WiFi simultaneously.

Cisco notes that global Wi-Fi offload traffic will exceed global cellular traffic by 2019 (surely it already does),

Mobility IQ is supposed to give service providers real-time visibility into network, user, and business intelligence across Wi-Fi, 3G, and LTE networks. The issue is that data becomes fragmented across technology silos, and network owners have limited visibility into indoor and business networks, where their customers most frequently consume mobile services.

The fact that Cisco thinks there is an opportunity here implies what we have been saying at Faultline all along, which is that Cellcos have been rejigging their networks to accommodate WiFi as fast as they can, while pretending that this is the last thing on their mind. Otherwise Cisco would be shooting at a non-existent opportunity, as would Alcatel and both of them are too well plugged into their customers bases for that to be the case.

By providing a single, dynamic picture of the health of the entire network and offering APIs with which to take action, Mobility IQ will help optimize performance and identify problem to provide that all important thing a satisfied customer, one of the biggest weapons in a cellco’s arsenal.

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Mr. Fellah, is a Senior Analyst and founder of Maravedis with 20-year experience in the wireless industry. He authored various landmark reports on Wi-Fi, LTE, 4G and technology trends in various industries including retail, restaurant and hospitality. He is regularly asked to speak at leading wireless and marketing events and to contribute to various influential portals and magazines such as RCR Wireless, 4G 360, Rethink Wireless, The Mobile Network, Telecom Reseller to name a few. He is a Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) and Certified Wireless Technology Specialist (CWTS).