The great irony of LTE is that, in deploying it, mobile operators have created a demand they cannot fulfil. Such is the quality of experience on LTE networks under optimum conditions that end users who’ve had a taste now want a comparable experience everywhere they go, indoors and out.
No cellular network can deliver this ubiquity. It is difficult enough for operators to meet their geographical outdoor coverage obligations for LTE. When you factor in the numerous buildings that fill the landscape, the task simply becomes — in the words of 3UK’s Director of Network Strategy and Architecture, Phil Sheppard — “physically impossible”.
Sheppard, speaking at London Tech Week in June this year, gave voice to the frustration experienced by operators everywhere as they confront the problems associated with the provision of indoor cellular coverage. People spend the vast majority of their time indoors, so a network that only delivers optimum performance when the user is outside is not, in isolation, meeting user demand.
Data from the UK communications regulator brings the problem into sharper relief. The 2015 Ofcom Market Report published in August showed a 17.7% increase in LTE availability in the twelve months to May this year. The result is that 89.5% of UK premises now have outdoor LTE coverage from at least one 4G network, which is great progress.
However, Ofcom also published figures in December last year identifying 37% of UK premises as indoor LTE ‘not-spots’ (indoor locations where LTE service was completely unavailable) and a further 34% as being partial indoor LTE not-spots. Consider how many buildings there are in the square mile around the average home or office and you start to get a sense of the scale of the issue.
In discussion of possible solutions to his problem, Phil Sheppard called on businesses and venue owners to lend a hand. “I do think there’s some scope for collaboration with venue owners,” he was reported as saying. “I think it would be a positive and constructive way of working together.”
It’s not clear what Sheppard had in mind but, alive to the connectivity needs of their customers and indoor restraints on cellular networks, numerous businesses and venue owners have already taken action.
Amenity Wi-Fi is intentionally shared, for free, by all kinds of businesses and organisations. It is widespread and, while it is perhaps associated in many minds primarily with cafes and hotels, the reality is that you can find this kind of Wi-Fi almost anywhere. Banks, libraries, leisure centres, pharmacies, fast-food outlets, high street retailers; they have all realised connectivity is of paramount importance to their customers and responded by making it available as a complimentary service.
Combine this facility with private Wi-Fi found in homes and offices, as well as commercial
Wi-Fi where available, and you have a connectivity resource trending towards the very thing cellular networks cannot deliver: the total indoor coverage end users crave.
Wi-Fi has problems of its own, though. Ownership is fragmented, quality extremely variable, and access processes often so complex as to be off-putting. Unmanaged Wi-Fi radios drain smartphone battery, or attach to access points offering no onward connection to the Internet (often because of registration requirements), leaving end users effectively disconnected.
While it offers an answer to the indoor coverage problem in terms of raw connectivity, it lacks the sophistication of the automated, reliable experience users have come to expect on the cellular network.
So operators have a choice: They can either leave customers to manage their own indoor connectivity, or they can find a way to embrace and integrate this enormous Wi-Fi connectivity resource into the smartphone experience they deliver to their customers.
The first option is certainly easier for operators but it risks diminishing their importance to the end user. If those users get all of their home connectivity from their broadband provider, and manually access great Wi-Fi in all the public indoor locations they visit, the operator is effectively a bit player in their overall smartphone experience.
But if the operator has the means to help keep users connected across a range of different networks, treating those networks as a coherent resource and managing the entire experience for quality and convenience, they’re providing a lot more value.
There can be little doubt that indoor data connectivity is the most significant network challenge facing mobile operators. By their own admission they cannot apply traditional owned infrastructure models to address it, so it will be interesting to see if they can embrace new connectivity models in order to sustain their involvement in the end user’s smartphone experience.
About the author: Dave Fraser is CEO of Devicescape, which provides a curated virtual network of more than 20 million amenity Wi-Fi locations worldwide, integrating cellular connectivity with public, private and carrier Wi-Fi to create a seamless, quality-controlled mobile data experience.