We’re Going to Need a Bigger (Wireless) Boat!

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Can there just be one wireless? It makes you wonder with all the jockeying among cellular carriers, industry groups, and equipment manufacturers trying to position their version of next generation wireless as the dominant one.

You hear the buzz. AT&T and Verizon each claim to be first to 5G, even as the global 5G standards are still being written. 

(Note to carriers: When you get true 5G, please let us know.) 5G might displace low-cost, high-bandwidth WiFi while WiFi evangelists vociferously call for more WiFi everywhere, not less. Other rumblings arise with new capabilities. Citizens Broadband Radio System (CBRS) will supplant distributed antenna systems (DAS) for in-building wireless. Broadband LTE will replace narrowband land mobile radio (LMR) for public safety communications. Private LTE is a gamechanger for commercial and industrial applications where unlicensed sub 6 GHz, LMR, and WiFi Mesh are widely-used.  

The fact of the matter is, we’re going to need all of them. Wireless is not a zero-sum game where one technology wins and another loses. If you believe forecasts in the Ericsson Mobility Report and Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) that mobile data demand will grow exponentially to petabyte and extabyte proportions, then we will need a lot more infrastructure of all kinds. Whatever the numbers, the trajectory is evident already.  

In response, wireless networks must become very dense with radios, antennas and data processing moving closer to customers to achieve high data throughput and low latency that new applications (apps) require. Small cells are being deployed within microcell coverage areas, smaller access points will fill in small cell footprints and ultimately network endpoints will serve a few customers at a time.

Remember that line from the ‘Jaws’ movie when Police Chief Brody sees the monster shark for the first time and exclaims to Capt. Quint: “You’re going to need a bigger boat!”

It’s like that. The industry should be embracing all forms wireless, because applications are too numerous and too varied to be served by a single or dominant frequency band or wireless platform. Every type of wireless technology is needed and each one represents a tool in the application tool kit.

Myriad Use Cases

Two main factors dictate the appropriate wireless solution for any given use case: technology and cost. Technology specifies modulation, power, range, data throughput, low latency, and interference mitigation while cost parameters include capital efficiency, price/performance or cost per bit.

For instance, WiFi delivers high-speed connections at low equipment cost (read, low $/bit) but it’s not designed for mobility. On the other hand, 5G could deliver data connections to end users at WiFi speeds and include mobility but the radio access network (RAN) and CORE infrastructure costs are staggering and can only be underwritten by big carriers with big capex budgets. In many use cases, cellular and WiFi are complementary. In fixed wireless applications such as Verizon’s 5G Home, for example, Verizon is using its 5G millimeter wave spectrum to backhaul traffic from its in-home modem that connects to a customer-owned WiFi router.

FirstNet’s LTE Band 14 will deliver broadband communications to first responders (police, fire, EMS), but tried-and-true, two-way UHF LMR use is not going away, even within FirstNet coverage areas and especially in suburban and rural areas where FirstNet does not reach.

CBRS may resolve the RF source issue and deliver better price/performance in some in-building wireless applications but DAS is still the go-to infrastructure for multi-carrier, multi-band deployments in large enterprise and public venues.

In the big picture, no one solution fits all. More important, no one service provider has the financial wherewithal to pay for all the infrastructure needed to make it all work. The big carriers already are under financial duress with flat or declining service revenues and growing competition from non-carrier apps. A shared spectrum and infrastructure model becomes pragmatic.

In the future, wireless will be all about the user experience (UX). It will be a services business that relies on adaptive apps and new pricing models based on a customer’s location and what that customer wants to do, with the underlying technology being the enabler. Today, leading computing scientists are developing “edgeless computing” where, in very dense wireless networks, the cell edge disappears. In such scenarios, revenue-generating apps are dynamically created from software elements and computing resources that are part in the wireless devices themselves, part in the network, and part in the cloud. A different application calls for a different combination of these elements. This means that all this distributed functionality and computing are highly dependent upon all types of wireless infrastructure and lots of it.

A very big boat, indeed.

John Celentano is an Inside Towers contributing analyst. He can be reached at: [email protected]Comments? Email Us.

By John Celentano, Contributing Analyst

January 10, 2019

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