The Wireless Broadband Alliance has announced that it is teaming up with the Small Cell Forum to deepen integration between WiFi hotspots and licensed small cells.

A number of companies already manufacture small cells that incorporate WiFi, 3G and/or LTE technology, such as BelAir Networks, Ruckus Wireless, IP.Access, SpiderCloud and Alcatel-Lucent.

By deploying both licensed and unlicensed technologies, telecom operators can improve user experience through increased network capacity and advanced traffic management, as well as lowering device, infrastructure installation and backhaul costs.

To date, however, joint WiFi and small cell units are just two pieces of kit in a single box - there has been no clever integration to manage the traffic coming in.

One of the main purposes of the collaboration between the Wireless Broadband Alliance and the Small Cell Forum will be to conduct research into how to integrate WiFi and small cells at the network level, instead of simply using Wi-Fi to provide a pipe into the cellular network.

This could allow telecom operators to start building heterogeneous networks, whereby traffic is intelligently routed across either channel depending on how busy the network is or what service is being used.

The two channels could even be bonded together to create a very high bandwidth connection. This could allow Wi-Fi hotspots to support cellular services such as voice and SMS.

"The days of Wi-Fi vs cellular are dead. Both technologies are crucial for supporting the never ending growth in data traffic," said Gordon Mansfield, chairman of the Small Cell Forum.

"Wi-Fi hotspots are proving a valuable tool for managing surging mobile data traffic. Small cells, which now outnumber macrocells globally, represent the future of cellular as it strives to achieve new levels of coverage and capacity for all mobile devices.

"By bringing the two together, we can deliver a better experience for all users across all devices."

The two organisations will also collaborate on a range of other initiatives including looking at how small cells could impact efforts to simplify Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) access, and sharing best practices for optimising user experience and operator deployment strategies.

The NGH program is already making public Wi-Fi more accessible by removing the need for usernames and passwords. Major operators globally are currently trialling these new hotspots and deployments are expected imminently.

"The NGH program will now encompass the advances that emerge from this new cooperation paving the way for a truly converged future," said JR Wilson, chairman of the Wireless Broadband Alliance.

Research conducted by Informa Telecoms & Media on behalf of the Wireless Broadband Alliance reveals that smartphone-based hotspot connections now outnumber those from laptops.

This trend is set to accelerate as the industry moves toward the deployment of NGHs, based on open industry standards, according to the research.