The acceleration of smartphone adoption, increasing use of low cost laptop dongles and the appearance of Wi-Fi in all sorts of devices from smart badges and trackers to tablets and phones, means one thing for networks—lots more data to carry in the air.
This is a significant issue because despite the advances in wireless network technology—there is no dark fibre in the sky—capacity is limited. With wireline, it is always possible to light existing or dig more fibre or cables into the ground (at a price), but wireless networks are ultimately constrained, and apparently demand, thus far, is not.
It may be that might change. Perhaps users will get bored or their appetite for buying new data-intensive mobile products will diminish? The evidence from recent launches of devices such as Apple’s iPad indicates this is unlikely to be the case.
Or perhaps over time, with increases in mobile network tariffs, demand will be controlled by price—no wireless net neutrality then—but this will still be like trying to keep a pressure cooker lid on with an elastic band. Network operators need to stretch their tariffs and rules from time to time to win over and accommodate new users, devices and applications, in spite of how much network resource they will subsequently consume.
This means there will continue to be pressure on precious spectrum and the rest of the network. Squeezing more data into a finite pipe means compromises, constrictions or caps. Users, however, will not put up with any degradation in the quality of the experience—especially if their work or business depends on it.
The challenges facing mobile cellular networks are complex. Not only with more devices and data consumption, but the usage patterns are becoming harder to predict. When there was only a single application—voice telephony—it was easier to predict how it would be used and the impact this would have on the network. Now a plethora of applications pass data with and without the knowledge of the user, as roaming ‘bill shock’ often demonstrates.
Even with voice, the reasons and opportunities to make calls has accelerated. Despite texting, email and messaging people make mobile phone calls for even the slightest of reasons (“Hello, I’m on the train”) and this is especially noticed when there are many subscribers close together, sharing a common experience—at transport hubs, events or sports venues. This has tested voice networks on many occasions, but subscribers are at least clear that a call is made or not, or has been dropped. With data and applications, the effect of such problems can become even more frustrating.
For business use this is a real issue; if workers or business processes are coming to depend on mobile data access, can organisations truly rely on networks to deliver the right quality of experience? Operators can no longer assume that coverage is enough. They have to measure and test network performance based on the experience of the user, and this means end-to-end response time, total application, to client (and back). On the basis of this they are then in a position to provide service assurance commitments and guarantees to their business customers.
Cellular network providers have the advantage (some say otherwise) of being regulated as they are licensed users of spectrum, but unlicensed spectrum is also becoming essential to the business with greater use of Wi-FI for in-building, cross-campus data networks, wireless homes and even public hotspots. Wi-Fi is also providing alternatives for phone calls though fixed/mobile convergence when combined with cellular or alone in a voice over wireless LAN form of telephony.
Whereas once Wi-Fi could have been considered a ‘best efforts’ form of connectivity, it is now becoming an assumed and critical element of LANs. No longer simply connecting an office worker’s laptop for synchronisation, but now also providing a platform for voice calls, asset tracking and essential front line connectivity for a whole variety of needs.
This too needs to be taken seriously, and that means that when deployed, Wi-Fi availability must be properly measured and assured to a sufficiently high level to meet the needs of the business. This is a step up for many IT departments and, combined with the need to gather assurances about mobile cellular data providers, means that those responsible for managing their organisation's mobile IT networks have to switch their thinking from meeting technical service levels to meeting user experience criteria.
These requirements may at times seem subjective, and some users are prone to complain even when it is not justified, so if there are problems with current suppliers, talking to vendors who are providing more tangible mobile network assurance solutions would seem to be a good idea.