The concept of the protected office network is evolving to become much more open. The distinction between private wireless communications inside and outside the office has blurred. Does this open up an opportunity for services providers (whether mobile operators, MSOs or systems integrators) to build out and deliver a common wireless communication infrastructure throughout?
Small Cells incorporating Wi-Fi are an ideal technology to achieve that goal when combined and managed as part of a seamless solution.
The trend of opening up the network
Enterprise IT managers used to lock down corporate networks based inside their buildings, allowing access only from known devices physically wired or using enterprise Wi-Fi onsite.
Demand for remote access, from home workers and staff travelling out of the office, extended the reach of the corporate network.
Wireless access via cellular and Wi-Fi has now become common, both inside and outside the office.
These are typically secured through VPN (Virtual Private Networking) and extend the known, protected communication path.
There are several key trends driving demand further:
- Access Anywhere: Executives now access their corporate email and data from what can be considered quite "security hostile" environments – connecting through ad-hoc Wi-Fi networks of unknown provenance, open to interception and attack.
- Any Device: The ubiquitous corporate Blackberry has been replaced by a wide variety of smartphones and tablets, with earlier restricted choice expanded into a free-for-all. This large survey reported that 44% of all emails are opened on mobile devices, and Apple iPhone is the leading email client with 25% market share.
- Cloud Services: Many more services are being delivered through the Cloud. This is more common for the smaller business without any legacy IT infrastructure, but larger businesses and organisations are also widely adopting popular services such as Salesforce. Sensitive corporate data now extends into the cloud, either held in private data centres or outsourced.
These trends level the playing field for connectivity and dramatically change the end-to-end security architecture.
Implications for a corporate communications access network
This leads to several major changes for enterprise IT managers, including:
- An expectation that services will work across multiple devices, not just prescribed subset of device configurations and operating system releases. There has been greater emphasis on (automated) device provisioning, device authentication onto the network (typically using 802.1x) and protecting the data centres.
- A greater demand for improved wireless and cellular coverage within office buildings. Both voice and data should work efficiently, not one or the other, and service should be ubiquitous, efficient and seamless.
- A changing view of what services can and should be filtered or blocked. Businesses don't want their employees downloading porn or wasting time on Facebook/watching sport. Many block these sites in their corporate firewalls, leading to smartphones/tablets being used instead via cellular. Perhaps such filters will become redundant in the longer term, either being replaced by (controversial) government initiatives, such as in the UK, to restrict everyone's access to unsuitable websites. In my view, enforcing blocks of Facebook etc. will become more of a behavioural issue than a technical one.
Improving the wireless coverage in-building
Enterprise Wi-Fi has grown dramatically; with robust, high-capacity Wi-Fi access points becoming widely deployed. Most large and medium sized businesses have an in-house Wi-Fi network. The cost savings from offloading/bypassing the cellular network justify investment, although clever negotiation with cellular providers can reduce the difference. However, what Wi-Fi cannot seamlessly address globally is fully mobile voice service and, regardless of perception, voice services are still of key importance.
With end users expecting to be able to access the same services regardless of whether physically in the office building or elsewhere, it is questionable whether the same architecture could and should be used in both situations. Perhaps the firewalls should be moved back into the edge of the datacentre and the office treated in the same way as any other location. This move enables data applications to see "one view" of the enterprise and simplifies corporate IT activities.
In offices such as mine, the Wi-Fi access is very good (as long as you don't move between rooms) but the cellular coverage is poor from the majority of networks. Is it not reasonable to expect better coverage throughout the office, leading to wider adoption of cellular service alongside Wi-Fi?
An opportunity for cellular operators to service office buildings
The scale of mobile operators today is vast, and they have the resources to deploy huge numbers of cellsites (large and small) to meet their customer's needs.
The market for enterprise data service has been "offloaded" to a variety of other organisations, including the enterprises themselves, their building owners, Wireless ISPs and system integrators. On the whole, the voice market, however, has not been offloaded to Wi-Fi except perhaps for certain expensive international or roaming calls. Business people value the ability to be always connected, regardless of where they are or how they are moving about
Mobile operators already have the scale and capability to install and provide indoor service to enterprises should they wish. The shifting barriers of security open up this opportunity, so that the service can be delivered and provided in a similar way to any other public access area.
Small Cells with integrated Wi-Fi meet that need
Clearly, we'd see small cells being ideal for this purpose, combining 3G and/or LTE with Wi-Fi in single access points deployed around the building. Engineering seamless coverage between indoor and out, especially handover of active calls, provides a clear differentiator.
There are proven solutions already available which could address this requirement for both 3G/Wi-FI and LTE/Wi-Fi combinations. China Mobile's Nanocell concept (TD-LTE plus Wi-Fi) could quickly grow to become the most widely deployed.
This opportunity offers an additional income stream for today's mobile operators who are looking at where they can attract new revenues. It also builds on the mature and powerful small cell technology available today to serve that need.
Our thanks to Art King, Director of Enterprise Services and Technologies at Spidercloud, for sharing his insights in the preparation of this article.
Spidercloud are a sponsor of ThinkSmallCell