Mobile Services: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
While the cellular market is built on some of the most advanced technologies we encounter in networking, almost no one involved in buying it knows the first thing about the technology. Knowing how to add emojis to a text message now seems to qualify someone as “expert” in mobile technologies. The cellular carriers have tacitly encouraged this incompetence by fielding sales forces that are well versed in all of the consumer hot buttons on mobile devices but know little about what enterprise buyers need to understand.
For enterprise buyers, this posture of benign ignorance will soon leave them woefully unprepared to position their organizations to take the next step in mobile enablement -- much less even ensure that their cell phones will work indoors.
The mobile device business experienced an explosion in interest over the past 10 years, however, the mobile carrier business has seen steady growth and a relatively stable progression in terms of technology and applications. On the carrier side, we are suddenly seeing a deluge of technical options coming to the fore, probably more than at any time in recent memory. That in turn is driving an interest in new requirements like the Internet of Things (IoT) and improving indoor coverage so smartphones can take on their desired role as the user’s primary business phone.
Seeing this vision into reality will require that enterprise buyers get smarter about operator plans and how the new offerings will impact their own ability to stay in front of the curve. Let’s take a look at some of the challenges those buyers will face.
Currently 5G rollouts are beginning and those initiatives will have a major impact within the next two years. The general take on 5G is that it will deliver higher data rates and greater bandwidth efficiency (i.e., an improvement in the number of bits you can send per cycle of radio spectrum). If current projections hold true, we will see an order of magnitude performance boost with sustained data rates of 100 M downstream and 10 Mbps upstream.
For Internet of Things (IoT) requirements, the big news will be services with latency in the one-millisecond range for applications like autonomous vehicles, and support for device density up to one million devices per square kilometer to accommodate all of those IoT sensors. And 5G is only part of the story as there are a number of other transmission technologies being developed to address the requirements of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. In any event, enterprises should be asking the “when and where” questions about 5G deployments, as well as the availability of services specifically designed for IoT.
Voice over LTE (VoLTE)
Let’s be frank, cellular voice quality stinks. Even if you get a strong wireless connection, you’re using codec technology from the 1990s. The proposed path out of this is called Voice over LTE or “VoLTE.” When used in conjunction with Adaptive Multi-Rate Wideband (AMR-WB) voice encoding, wireless networks will have the equivalent of G.722 wideband voice encoding. The VoLTE network service is clearly the missing element as high-end devices starting with Apple's iPhone 6 and Samsung's Galaxy 5 devices already support VoLTE capability.
For the carriers, the other challenge with VoLTE is interoperability across carrier networks. AT&T and Verizon have pledged inter-network interoperability, but what about the other guys? Even more importantly, how about wideband interoperability between wired networks using G.722 and VoLTE? That's something worth asking.
Indoor Coverage and the Coming Battle Over Unlicensed Spectrum
For mobile communications to be effective, it has to work everywhere, and that includes indoors. Indoor coverage has been a long-standing problem in wireless, and the problem with outdoor cellular networks is becoming more pronounced with the increasing adoption of building standards like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) where the more desirable building materials also are better at blocking radio signals.
Traditionally the carriers have used expensive, custom-designed distributed antenna systems (DAS) to address indoor coverage problems, but they are now pursuing less costly small-cell solutions that can operate in a number of different frequency bands -- some of those are the same unlicensed bands enterprise customers use for their private Wi-Fi networks.
The mobile industry has been very active in developing these small cell options. Some operate on licensed cellular bands, but a number use what the industry refers to as LTE-Unlicensed. The LTE-U Forum developed the first preliminary standard to work with the 3GPP standards. A second version called Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) was produced as part of 3GPP Rel 13, however, that implementation uses unlicensed transmission only on the downlink. The enhanced LAA (eLAA) version will be part of 3GPP Rel. 14 and will support upstream and downstream operation. Another version is being driven by the MulteFire Alliance. All of those look at using unlicensed channels in the 5 GHz U-NII band, which could spell interference for customer-owned 802.11a, n and ac Wi-Fi networks down the line.
Other carriers are looking at voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi), or, more correctly, "VoYoFi” as the cellular voice calls made within your facilities will actually be running over YOUR private Wi-Fi network. Whether it’s cellular carriers operating on unlicensed channels or routing cellular voice calls and cellular data traffic over customer Wi-Fi networks, these are topics enterprise buyers will need to be paying attention to. Sharing those resources with the cellular carriers will indeed have an impact on the value of those private Wi-Fi networks.
If that isn't enough to think about, consider your wiring closets. Traditional DAS could support and distribute signals for multiple carriers. With small cells, each operator appears to be looking at dedicated rather than shared implementation -- about the only clear multicarrier option is VoWiFi. Imagine what your wiring closets could look like in a small cell-per-carrier configuration.
One of the benefits we have found in dealing with the cellular carriers is that they provided the service, we paid for it, but the carrier addressed all of the technical issues. Contrast that with a typical Wi-Fi deployment where all of the responsibility for providing reliable, functional wireless service throughout the entire facility fell on the shoulders of the IT department.
The combination of new services like 5G, new requirements like those for IoT and spectrum challenges being experienced by the carriers is defining the new normal in dealing with mobile services. Frighteningly, cellular purchasing decisions in many organizations are still being left to the purchasing department that is ill-equipped to fully understand much less make good decisions in any of these areas. If IT departments are going to be called upon to deliver the types of mobile services that meet the traditional as well as the emerging needs of enterprises, IT is going to have to get far more involved and better educated in mobile.