The future of indoor Wi-Fi

09 Jan 2019

Is it oversimplifying it when we say “users don’t care what technology powers their connectivity – as long as it is fast, efficient, seamless and always on”?

In the IDC Market Analysis Perspective on Worldwide Communications and Collaboration, Wayne Kurtzman, research director, social & experiential solutions, wrote that “consumerization and ease of technology is changing how we communicate and collaborate. Everyone has become a connected knowledge worker and now expect, both at home and work, seamless communications and ecommerce-like experiences that help them do more quality work in less time.”

A view reiterated by GSMA director general, Mats Grandryd at the 2018 Mobile Broadband Forum (MBBF) in London: “We are moving to an era where we will be intelligently connecting everyone and everything to a better future.”

Users, whether as workers or consumers, expect to be connected to the world from anywhere and at any time. The emerging digital economy is fuelling the creation of communities served as platforms for engagement and commerce. Enabling these platforms is wireless connectivity, and two channels have long served and competed for the right to serve as the wireless channel of choice.

Cellular wireless connectivity has evolved throughout the evolution of cellular mobile technologies – from zero generation through to the upcoming 5G. Each generation introduces enhancements that in many cases require upgrades to the equipment in order to support new services and formats, whether it is transitioning from analog to digital and from voice, video and now data.

But in the emerging markets of Asia, costly data tariff has meant consumers have favored the use of Wi-Fi connectivity, as opposed to cellular data, to connect to their digital transforms. It also helped that IEEE 802.11 standards have remained largely intact since the first protocol came out in 1997.

Efforts to ensure backward compatibility to previous standards even as advances in innovation move forward have allowed for new technologies to reshape the next generation of Wi-Fi standards without disavowing the efforts of previous development. This may be one of the best legacies of Wi-Fi standards.

This stability in technology evolution, coupled with limitations in indoor cellular coverage, has allowed enterprises, particularly those that see consumer engagement as essential to revenue growth, to harness the power of mobility using Wi-Fi connectivity.

However, a paradigm shift is occurring that may affect the future of Wi-Fi.

Ericsson’s November 2017 Mobility Report predicts that global mobile data traffic for all devices will increase eight-fold between 2017 and 2013, reaching 110 exabytes per month. The GSMA Mobile Economy 2018 report predicts that smartphones will account for 95% of total mobile data traffic by 2023.

“Today consumers are connected to others, and to the things around us, increasing through digital platforms. When you talk about the environment through which the usage is being generated, our usage is predominantly in an indoor environment. This could be your home, the office, the coffee shop, or the shopping mall. All are prime examples of an indoor environment,” said Konesh Kochhal, director for Industry Ecosystems Engagements Huawei Southern Pacific Region.

An experience gap is brewing

Ian Fogg, vice president of analysis at OpenSignal, explained that cellular continues to have an "ease of connection" advantage in public locations compared with Wi-Fi. “Ever since the early days of public Wi-Fi in the first few years of this century, connecting onto public Wi-Fi has been hindered by log-on screens and other cumbersome authentication methods. While the situation on public Wi-Fi networks has improved slightly, cellular still offers a far superior and completely seamless experience: Provided a smartphone user has a valid SIM, they will always connect to an indoor, or outdoor, antenna without needing to enter a password or username, or any other additional step,” he added.

Enterprises, including sectors of industries that see consumer engagement as essential to revenue growth, have deployed mobile connectivity solutions to take advantage of mobile customers. But limitations in capacity, coverage, and consistent user experience plagued networks that are not designed for high traffic footfall or usage peaks such as lunch periods or early evenings and weekends.

Kochhal argues that investments in indoor connectivity solutions are not catching up with consumer demand. He estimates that 70-80% of traffic generated by mobile users is from these indoor environments.

But a good cellular quality signal, measured as between 90 dBm to -105 dBm, has only 8% penetrated in indoor environments. “Over the years we have seen 10-15% of annual investment put in by the service provider goes into building these solutions. And this is understandable as these distributed antenna systems (DAS) are costly, have accessibility issues, and are lacking in operation and maintenance flexibility,” explained Kochhal.

What all this leads to is an experience gap. He acknowledged that to create an enhanced mobile experience will require significant investment on the part of operators.

As for consumers, connectivity costs may no longer be the deciding factor in how they choose to be connected. Yes, in the 1990s, high data tariffs tempered data usage. However the success of Over-The-Top (OTT) services in the 2000s has meant users are more willing to pay for higher data tariff to ensure undisrupted connection.

The pendulum is swinging

The November 2018 OpenSignal report titled “The State of Wifi vs Mobile Network Experience as 5G Arrives” revealed that the cellular experience has started to trump Wi-Fi for mobile users in some markets heralding what may well be a future direction as advances in 4G continue to accelerate with the impending arrival of 5G.

The Forrester 2018 Retail Best Practices: Mobile Web study revealed that smartphones will be used in over a third of total retail sales in 2018, including research price comparison and purchases.

The trend line is clear: mobile users will prioritize on the types of services and products they acquire based on their connectivity experience. Operators and businesses that want to monetize this connectivity trend will soon need to make the decision. Will they be willing to forego investing in enhanced indoor connectivity solutions and potentially lose business to others willing to make the investment?

The future of Wi-Fi in 5G

This will become even clearer with the arrival of 5G service. One of the highlights of the 2018 MBBF in London was the keynote by Huawei’s rotating chairman, Ken Hu. He commented that 5G is forcing sweeping changes in business with new opportunities not previously seen. He added that 5G will turn connectivity into a platform, wireless access networks will go beyond pipe, providing seamless, ubiquitous, and limitless connectivity for all people and all things.

OpenSignal’s Fogg offered an upbeat outlook predicting that a future where both cellular and public Wi-Fi will continue to co-exist, explaining that there are still many devices that have Wi-Fi capability but not cellular modem such as PCs, portable games consoles and tablets. “But for smartphone users, cellular speeds will continue to improve which will mean they will increasingly prefer to use the cellular network when in a cafe, or train station, rather than switch onto Wi-Fi,” he commented.

Asked about the importance of digital indoor connectivity solutions, Richard Bourne, CEO, Stratto, commented that “it’s about providing a multi-operator service in a world where people are cutting the cord and using mobile phones as their primary communications device whether that’s in a multi-tenant building or a shared workspace environment. A single operator solution doesn’t fix the problem.”

UK-based Stratto is a provider of distributed antenna systems, small cell networks, and more recently Huawei’s Digital Indoor System to deliver indoor 3G and 4G mobile coverage.

“5G is supposed to integrate people, industry and enterprise connectivity through uses cases such as enhanced mobile broadband, fixed wireless access, AR/VR, industrial robots, and assembly line processes that will be digitalized. Many of these will be consumed indoor,” advised Kochhal.

He cautioned that for 5G to be successful, the indoor connectivity limitations of today must be addressed. He also warned that the 10-15% investment strategies will further exacerbate the experience gap consumers are already experiencing today. He opined that building new generation of indoor connectivity solutions will have a positive impact for businesses today and pave the way for faster adoption of 5G 2-3 years into the future.

In describing the design of the wireless infrastructure for use in the 17km Shatin to Central Link (SCL) MTR line in Hong Kong, HKT Engineering head of strategic wireless technology and core networks, Dr. Henry Wong, noted that an all-fiber based infrastructure is needed to support 5G frequencies both in the high 28-GHz and the lower 700-MHz. The cost of building such an infrastructure is tremendous and therefore necessitates the use of technology that can support 5G and future generation.

Digital indoor systems (DIS) address many of the limitations of current indoor connectivity strategies through digital headend, IT cable and visualized O&M. “It allows for more flexibility, features higher efficiency, offers better connections, and is easier to deploy and operate. It is more cost-efficient than previous DAS solutions. It also allows you to have the flexibility in terms of getting those 5G spectrum bands by adding the 5G supportive headend, thereby delivering on the experience and extend mobile subscription across outdoor and indoor environment without the user having to select a network again,” concluded Kochhal.

At the end of the day, it is all about being connected 24x7 from anywhere. Michelle Zarri, technical director for GSMA summed: “If you think about it 80% of mobile traffic happens indoor. There is a dire need for an evolution and we think technologies like the DIS that Huawei is proposing are essential for the success of 5G.”

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