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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Connected Next Century - Wireless

No discussion of the future could be taken serious without a discussion around wireless.  Of all the things I am going to say in this entry, this is likely to be the least controversial.  

Wireless is an area where much is going to change in a relatively short amount of time.   And those changes are going to be more reactive to consumer trends and new competitions.

This topic is a very broad subject, so for this treatment we are going to stick to Wi-Fi and cellular mobile architectures.  Unless you are a member of IEEE or 3GPP, they can seem complex or even intimidating.  So let's break it down a bit, and start with the idea that there is benefit in understanding the how (we got here) before we can discuss the what (is likely to come).  Wi-Fi has been around as a stable WLAN architecture for over 15 years and mobile broadband has been tolerable since the release of HSPA (3G) in 2010.  But there is much still to be worked out, in both the licensed and unlicensed frequency space.  

Honestly speaking Wi-Fi still exists as the wild west.  Consumers are frustrated, and they don’t have an easy off the shelf solution, they are looking for something that just works.  The device (access point or AP) market is dominated by the service provider (monthly lease) with their single AP fits all model.  The retail market has seen a recent batch of mesh solutions from old and new players, with their set it and forget it hardware.  The demands from large MDU’s (multi-dwelling apartment style building) are pushing the limits of congestion and collision, and every vendor and service provider is looking for that magic bullet (solve the physics issues).  The number one type of service call for the service provider is still Wi-Fi and connectivity issues, and if the solution was about hardware, there would not be a problem anymore.  In response most of the major service providers are looking at some form of Carrier Class Wi-Fi (CCW).  Emulating the core features of mobile networks (carrier) that manage multi-AP, roaming, device management, authentication, SON, recovery, quality and ultimately packet core (combined data and voice on the same network). CCW is this idea that the right number of features and devices can efficiently deliver the Wi-Fi services providers need and the quality consumers want.   But, in order to get there, to build and sell CCW; critical pieces required to offer a differentiated service that meets the wide and varied needs of diverse installations requires interoperability and increased investment.  By contrast, much of today’s commercially available Wi-Fi is offered as best effort with no expectation of quality of service.

On a parallel technological track, the mobile network operators (MNO) have been developing 3GPP based solutions under the family name of 3G/4G (LTE) and working on 5G.  Consumers have been able to take advantage of bigger and bigger pipes of faster throughput for their mobile devices.  As the MNO’s upgrade technology approaches the next generation (5G) to deliver increased coverage and capacity, they are in a unique position to disrupt residential broadband.  This however is predicated upon them adapting their billing models to favor unlimited, or significant usage caps, to sustain what customers are expecting.  What they are building is new broadband market competition for consumers as fixed wireless broadband (FWB).  This is more than just Wi-Fi vs LTE in the home, it’s the enabling of future consumption anywhere and anytime.

As with all good ideas, 5G places the industry at something of a crossroads: 4G and LTE-A, a variant of LTE, have many years of life left to deliver value for the existing mobile device market, but there is growing acknowledgement that the capacity limitations within LTE means that delivering broadband at scale is going to be a challenge.  5G therefore is becoming widely recognized as an evolutionary step for a new market of fixed wireless broadband.  The future of FWB is becoming clearer by the quarter, and while FWB is a threat to the DSL and PON (CPE) vendor, the market is huge, and the competition from incumbent and new is going to be fierce.  The Telco, the Cable, and even the Mobile provider are all targeting the same consumer, who today is a customer of probably at least two of these respective companies.   How we navigate these waters that are being churned by the biggest of boats, spending billions to upgrade and compete to be the sole service provider starts with understanding 5G and fixed mobile broadband and matures as we build a new 5G service and skill set to pick up the challenge.

Benefits of OFDMA - Virtual Network Slicing
We should come back to the present now and discuss the future of wireless. In 2018/19 we are going to see major SOC releases from chip OEM’s in Wi-Fi called 802.11ax and 5G, called new radio (NR).  But what is transformative about both of these technologies is their similarities – considerable improvements in spectral efficiencies enabling new high-density deployments.  Both introduce enhancements to MIMO, MU-MIMO and introduce OFDMA at scale.  I don’t see this as another WiMAX vs LTE competition, primarily because I see AX and NR as more complimentary in their use case application.  AX is not likely to become an access (last mile) solution and NR is likely to be constrained to frequencies that won’t penetrate external walls for the foreseeable future. In other words they create better consumer wireless solution combined.  Not coincidentally, we know that IEEE and 3GPP have been working together to align Wi-Fi with cellular.  The future of wireless is more about slicing and virtualizing the network to communicate with many different devices at the same time - like IoT and mobile and streaming TV - and OFDMA is the key to making this happen for both Wi-Fi and NR.

Now for the controversial.  If Wi-Fi is the home turf of the service provider with their fixed wired broadband outside the home and Wi-Fi inside, and mobile is creating new fixed wireless broadband outside the home and a combo of Wi-Fi and LTE inside, what is the future.  This wired vs wireless competition is about quality vs class of service.  Consumers have never felt a loyalty to their broadband provider, they just want the service to work and be available anywhere.  That's a challenge as a cable customer when you're the gym and want to stream the latest Netflix episode.  You're Wi-Fi only works at home, your mobile account has a few gigabit limit each month and the gym Wi-Fi is terrible or nonexistent.  Some carriers do offer free Netflix, but that doesn't help with Prime or Hulu or the next streaming service.  As NR becomes ambient, a carrier with a class of service of unlimited streaming inside and outside the home is going to attract cable customers away to a single provider bill.  Cable knows this is and is now investing heavily into more public Wi-Fi, more MVNO, and possibly more consolidations or mergers. 

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