Ericsson, Nokia Siemens lay the groundwork for HetNet with new Wi-Fi technology

Wireless equipment makers Ericsson(s eric) and Nokia Siemens Networks(s nok)(s si) took important first steps toward the future heterogeneous networks this week at CTIA Wireless. Both vendors announced new traffic steering technologies that make Wi-Fi and cellular data networks play nice with one another.

Today Wi-Fi and 3G/4G networks sit side by side, but they hardly work together. When you’re in the presence of an authorized hotspot your device will log in, leaving the cellular connection behind. As you wander away from the access point, your Wi-Fi connection gets weaker to the point of uselessness until your device finally disconnects and forces its way back onto the cellular grid. It’s hardly an ideal or seamless experience.

These new traffic steering technologies, however, make what were once two distinct networks act as one, selecting the optimal connection at any given moment. So if you suddenly wander into a congested hotspot, the network knows to keep you connected to your 3G cell, instead of forcing you onto a useless Wi-Fi link. As the congestion levels change on those two networks, the user’s device is shifted between them in real time.

This kind of traffic steering will be a key component of heterogeneous networks, or HetNets, which will make use of different radio technologies to create multi-layered and tremendously high-capacity mobile networks. But according to Petri Hautakangas, Nokia Siemens North American head of technology, it’s just a first step. Networks and devices will eventually be able to balance traffic between networks, as well as ship data simultaneously across multiple radio connections, he said.

For Ericsson, the news also represents the full integration of BelAir Networks’ Wi-Fi hotspot technology into its cellular architecture after acquiring the Canadian vendor last year. Nokia Siemens doesn’t make its own Wi-Fi gear but it partners with Wi-Fi access point and hotspot makers like Ruckus Wireless(s rkus).