02 Feb 2012 10:18 AM

Wi-Fi comes of age

Wi-Fi has gone from being the unreliable and unloved member of the wireless sector to a business-critical necessity. James Atkinson spoke to six Wi-Fi manufacturers to get their take on how the market is changing

Wi-Fi comes of age

Not so long ago Wi-Fi was seen as the disreputable child of the wireless family, especially by the mobile phone operators, who regarded it as unreliable. All that has changed, and remarkably quickly too, although the reasons behind this sea change in attitude are multiple.

From the mobile carriers’ perspective, the unprecedented growth in the demand for data driven by smartphones and tablets is straining the ability of their networks to manage the traffic. Operators are realising they need Wi-Fi to offload traffic from their macro-licensed cellular networks and to provide additional backhaul capacity.

Highly sophisticated, data-hungry mobile devices are entering the everyday world of not just play, but work too. People want to be able to use their devices in all walks of life. At the same time, vendors are developing the capability of Wi-Fi to the point where the technology is approaching carrier grade levels.

It’s certainly providing a boom time for Wi-Fi equipment manufacturers: whether providing outdoor products targeting data offload or backhaul for mobile operators, or in-building systems for stadia, hospitals, schools and, increasingly, enterprises and the hospitality industry.

Canadian manufacturer BelAir Networks, which focuses on the mobile operator space, believes that the carriers are now recognising that Wi-Fi embedded in their networks can unlock new markets and services.

Ronny Haraldsvik, senior VP and chief marketing officer for BelAir Networks, says: ‘There has been a massive build up by cable companies. We know of over 100 trials by carriers for Wi-Fi and small cells. AT&T has done more than one billion connections in a 12 month span. So if you factor that up based on around 500 mobile operators and 100 cable operators, that comes to around 100 billion connections across the world.’

He continues: ‘Those are staggering numbers. We’ve done some analysis of Wi-Fi on carriers’ networks. There is a doubling of traffic after it is deployed. The intention may have been to deploy Wi-Fi as a means to offload traffic off the main network, but usage goes up to 20Tb of data. But a carrier does not want all this data going over its licensed spectrum.’

Integration

From BelAir’s perspective, the challenge for Wi-Fi vendors is how can they reliably provide tens of thousands of network elements and make them easy and simple to install.

Haraldsvik says: ‘It’s never been about how well a Wi-Fi access point (AP) performs in a test. It is about how well does the system work when you deploy hundreds of these APs and how well does it integrate with other networks.’

BelAir has developed a small outdoor cell, the BelAir 2100 Metrocell, which is designed for dense urban areas and supports multiple licensed bands, including 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi and also offers a range of integrated wireless and wireline backhaul options. One key point is that it works with the operator’s chosen macro and core network equipment making integration, installation and commissioning faster and smoother.

For California-based Ruckus Wireless, dealing with the density of users coming onto wireless networks has been a primary consideration for its product investment.

David Callisch, VP of marketing at Ruckus, says: ‘The wireless industry is facing a new problem: capacity. So, the question is, how do you support a large number of concurrent users? We are at the cusp of starting to look at these issues, but not many suppliers are looking at managing the RF properly.

‘We are looking at managing the number of users, so we are trying to make Wi-Fi behave more like licensed technology. We aim to support services and applications over Wi-Fi that you can do on a carrier’s cellular network, especially accessing hi-res video.’

Callisch points out that many vendors provide very neat functions to control the traffic once the user is connected, but few are striving to make that initial connection seamless, and connectivity problems are what users complain about most.

Ruckus’s USP is to focus on connecting the user quickly and reliably. Its smart antenna array and family of software and hardware technology is designed to optimise the RF spectrum. Its beamforming capability allows the antenna to constantly switch direction to get the best connection and the best data rate possible.

‘In 2012 we will see more carrier class Wi-Fi, not just for enterprises, but for carriers too,’ argues Callisch. ‘Carriers can build hotspots, but they are just islands of connectivity and they lose touch with the user and provider. So, carriers want an on-ramp to mobile services, as they want to keep in touch with that subscriber to build new services, which will promote stickiness for their network.

‘You will see a big push on Wi-Fi and 802.11u (‘seamless’ roaming between Wi-Fi and cellular networks – see box, right) at MWC 2012, but big equipment vendors haven’t done much in this space, though the likes of NSN and Ericsson will look at strategic relationships with Wi-Fi vendors,’ says Callisch.

Mainstream

Xirrus, another California-based supplier, is also focused on addressing the density issue, but its attention is directed primarily indoors – although this also includes stadia and outdoor events.

Sean Larner, VP of sales at Xirrus, says: ‘Previously, mobile operators have not seen Wi-Fi as a realistic option, but they accept it is real now. Wireless is now mainsteam and is business-critical to many enterprises and organistions. They have to find a way to provide a good service to customers and get traffic into the ether without sacrificing service levels. A lot of the change in the perception of Wi-Fi is to do with data offload. We all know there is a problem and finally the carriers are starting to address the fact.’

Xirrus has focused its offering on its ability to handle high surges in density, as you would get with 80,000 people in a stadium, or university lecture halls where hundreds of students switch on their iPads at the same time. It does this by providing the network architecture and hardware that allows the client to scale up when necessary without having to reconfigure the network architecture or run extra cabling to new radios.

Instead, its modular chassis allows end users to install additional radios (from two to 16 APs) either into the same chassis or by changing the chassis for a larger one, but without having to change its position. So, the density issue can be met by simply adding more APs to the radio chassis.

HP Networking, part of the giant Hewlett Packard group, also sees addressing the connectivity issue between cellular and Wi-Fi networks as a key issue. The solution to the Wi-Fi/3G connectivity problem provided by HP is to follow a unified wireless concept.

‘You shouldn’t see Wi-Fi as an overlay, but as a media in itself,’ says Lars Koelendorf, solution sales manager, Wireless Networking at HP Networking EMEA. ‘It’s a complete new access layer and it will become the access layer. If you apply a standard Wi-Fi access system as an overlay it will have separate management controls and policies to your wired network.

‘We need to unify it to create one system, either a wired or a wireless connection, users don’t care and administrators will want this too. It’s two different systems, but with one user database and one user ID. With our management system we can cover switches, access and security, and create a single device management and user access policy for the customer,’ says Koelendorf.

Speed is the other aspect that HP is attempting to address. Many vendors use the controller as the central hub for the network, but HP claims to have the fastest AP on the market (50Mbps, which also provides ample bandwidth to handle multiple devices at once) and has designed a distributed architecture for its network, which allows APs at the edge to be controllers by switching locally, so information does not have to be fed back to the central hub and out again. This makes the network faster.

Looking to the future, Koelendorf thinks that enterprises will move from providing access to their networks on a user/device basis to one where access is determined by the particular application required.

‘You don’t care what the device is, you care about the application the user wants to access,’ he says. ‘The benefit is that you can publish services to the right people in the right place with the right applications, once you have created the user profiles.’

Motorola Solutions is a long established player in the Wi-Fi market and while it has traditionally concentrated on providing indoor coverage solutions for retail, transport and logistics, it also has mesh Wi-Fi solutions in its portfolio targeting the outdoor environment for ports, stadia and city coverage.

For Patrick Groot-Nuelend, head of product management at Motorola Solutions, providing the scalability within a Wi-Fi network is of paramount concern. ‘Wi-Fi vendors need to focus on providing the right performance and quality of service to make it easier to both plan and install a wireless network and make it easy to operate and manage on a daily basis,’ he says.

Like HP, Motorola has developed a Wi-Fi architecture that distributes control to the edge of the network in the shape of its WiNG 5 WLAN system. ‘All the security and quality of service that used to reside in the central controller can now be managed at the edge. This provides better scalability and quality of experience,’ says Groot-Nuelend.

Motorola has also developed a number of other features to enhance the capacity management, for example, ‘airtime fairness’, which ensures clients on faster networks are not starved of bandwidth by legacy clients on slower ones. Its smart RF feature helps mitigate interference automatically.

Groot-Nuelend is also very mindful that customers are looking to make savings, so keeping costs as low as possible when designing Wi-Fi networks is vital. ‘You can design wonderful networks, but cost is a real concern in the current envrionment. We need to provide quality, agility and lower costs,’ he says.

One of the interesting developments noted by Cisco, probably the largest player in the Wi-Fi field, is the emergence of new business models for the delivery and management of Wi-Fi networks.

Canus Augustus, EMEAR mobility sales manager at Cisco, says: ‘There is a mix of different business models evolving depending on the adoption of technology in each country. It might be a service provider driving adoption into more than stadia and the public domain by going into retailers and then offering services across that network.

‘When we look at what the service providers are doing in the Wi-Fi space it is about reducing churn rather than making money,’ says Augustus. ‘Cable operators, wired and wireless operators are offering a Wi-Fi service at no incremental cost, so BT can’t take customers away from O2 or vice versa, for example.

‘The flipside is the enterprise environment. They put in the network and then offer their extra capacity to a service provider as a new revenue source. Those conversations come down to whether the customer wants to put in the network themselves and own and manage it or not. Others want the service provider to install and maintain it on a lease basis. We see both models happening,’ says Augustus.

Consumerisation

Mobile operators may want to offer Wi-Fi as an added service to customers and enterprises, but Augustus thinks it is unlikely any carriers will want to buy a Wi-Fi vendor.

‘Operators don’t really want to be product manufacturers. But the mobile infrastructure manufacturers such as Huawei and Ericsson are dipping their toes in by looking at Wi-Fi vendors. That might be disruptive and if it does happen we will have to address it,’he says.

Cisco sees the consumerisation of devices (‘bring your own to work’ or BYOD) as a key driver, but the sheer proliferation of devices in the 2.4GHz band in particular – and increasingly the 5GHz unlicensed band – is causing problems.

‘There are a lot of Bluetooth devices, microwave ovens, wireless speakers and cameras in the 2.4GHz spectrum,’ points out Augustus. ‘They take up a lot of the channel, so that has a negative impact on throughput and speed. We see these devices in the network space causing interference.’

Augustus says that in the past vendors have been able to indentify neighbouring Wi-Fi networks and reconfigure their own to avoid the interference. But with non-Wi-Fi devices crowding into the space it is difficult to identify the source of interference.

However, Cisco has developed its CleanAir (2.4GHz and 5GHz) product to address the issue. ‘We can identify what the device is, be it a microwave oven, a deck phone or camera. We can locate the non-Wi-Fi device and dynamically mitigate against it – this is unique to Cisco,’ says Augustus.

Wi-Fi has come a long way from being the unloved and unreliable sibling to wired and cellular networks. It may not have solved all the technical and quality problems yet, but with the technology rapidly evolving it is moving swiftly in the right direction. For end users it has become a real alternative to wired and cellular networks.



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