Cisco took aim at the burgeoning small cell market today with a new generation of hotspots that will bring a cellular-type roaming experience to Wi-Fi. 

A growing number of wireless operators are turning to Wi-Fi hotspots to shift data traffic off congested cellular networks, which are straining under the burden of bandwidth-intensive content like streaming video.  

 Cisco is working with AT&T, Shaw Communications and a number of other operators on next-generation Wi-Fi hotspots that automatically connect devices without users having to manually enter user names or passwords.  

"We are now entering the post-macrocell era, where small cells also will play a critical role in delivering the next-generation mobile Internet," Cisco CEO John Chambers said in the company's announcement.

The technology, developed by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, will simplify Wi-Fi offload by overcoming barriers to subscribers' use of the alternate source of connectivity. Global data traffic from smartphones, tablets and other wireless devices is expected to see an 18-fold increase between 2011 and 2016, according to recent estimates from Cisco. 

Cisco says it will be able to switch the "majority" of its estimated 12 million live Wi-Fi access points to the new standard, but did not set any hard dates for the upgrade. It has also come out with a new network gateway to help operators integrate licensed cellular services like LTE with unlicensed Wi-Fi networks. 

AT&T has been a frontrunner with both femtocells and Wi-Fi offload as it works to cope with the massive data demands of the iPhone, which it offered exclusively for three-and-a-half years beginning in 2007. The operator signed up for Cisco's femtocell platform in 2009 and now says it has the world's largest small cell network.  

"AT&T recognizes and appreciates the value small cells deliver to our network, and more importantly to our customers' wireless experiences," said Kris Rinne, AT&T's senior vice president of architecture and planning, in a statement. 

Rinne and other Cisco customers appeared on a panel at Mobile World Congress to discuss small cell deployments. Executives from Shaw Communications and Orange Group also participated in the panel, which was moderated by Chambers.