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Wi-Fi Global Congress Report London 2017

WBA CongressThis year’s UK event moved back to London into the massive Excel centre. The conference agenda was quite eclectic, raising questions about the WBA’s own longer-term ambitions. In addition to several conference presentations, I report on updates about CBRS, MulteFire and In-Building Managed Wireless services from Ruckus Wireless, Athonet and Boingo.

The Wireless Broadband Association is the champion of Wi-Fi roaming and hosts frequent regional conferences. I thought this year’s London event saw fewer delegates this year with perhaps 500 on the main day. This contrasts with their US events in San Jose and New York which are said to be more popular and perhaps reflects the lower interest from mobile operators in the European region. Event production quality remained high, with great branding, clear schedule and signage. Timekeeping was fairly relaxed which made it difficult to keep to meeting appointments.

WBA Mission

WBA co-chair Chris Bruce reminded us what the mission of the organisation was all about – principally making Wi-Fi easier to use. He thought there was still plenty of work to do as an industry to make Wi-Fi a seamless experience.

I’d observe that the WBA has mainly been associated with Passpoint, enabling seamless Wi-Fi roaming with cellular operators, which has had relatively little interest in Europe. There seems to be a lack of momentum in this region and the conference program struggled to highlight a specific theme. Topics such as 5G and MulteFire didn’t seem to me to be so relevant while the Smart City concept is still quite vague.

Wi-Fi technology moves towards 802.11ax and Wi-Gig

Edgar Figueroa has been CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance for 10 years now and continues to do a great job of promoting Wi-Fi technology widely. There are over 8 billion Wi-Fi devices in use today with over 3 billion new ones shipped annually. The vast majority of these are for private rather than public use.

Technology variants of Wi-Fi continue to evolve. 802.11n is still shipping today with volumes dropping off. 802.11ac has been shipping since 2012 and is now in the majority. From 2018 we can expect to see 802.11ax and 802.11ad (Wi-Gig) start shipping and grow to around 40% market share.

He thought that the term “hotspot” is becoming outdated, having originally referred to isolated locations where connections were available. He sees many places now having overlapping coverage, thus Wi-Fi is more ubiquitous and less about individual connection points.

I’d also mention the growth of mesh Wi-Fi which can provide a more seamless experience, both in the home and public areas. More products are becoming available, especially for residential use, although they may be a bit pricey for some.

Syniverse Mobile Marketplace

Syniverse provides IPX and Wi-Fi roaming cellular interconnection services and has partnered with BandwidthX to offer a “Mobile Marketplace”. The concept is that any organisation with spare Wi-Fi capacity can offer it for sale, specifying times and capacity available. This could be bought on demand on a pay-per-use basis.

BandwidthX first announced their technology at the same event in 2013. They partnered with DeviceScape to distribute it in 2015. While the technology is quite sophisticated, I’ve yet to see much interest from network operators (at least here in Europe) who have a stronger preference for expanding their own LTE capacity.

Boingo

Derek Peterson, CTO Boingo, told me they now have 90 million cellular handsets in the US which are Passpoint enabled. They have been supporting Sprint for 2 years, automatically switching to use Wi-Fi roaming where available. They launched with another Tier 1 operator in February adding 50 million Apple users with priority auto-connect. He expects to see further movement from others, and the market opportunity for Wi-Fi roaming increasing.

Boingo’s own business model has evolved. Their latest earnings call highlighted that some 60% of revenue comes from managed DAS services vs 30% from Wi-Fi (up from 25% DAS a few years ago). I’d extrapolate that this means providing Wi-Fi service (which is typically considered to be free by end users) is harder to profit from. Revenue sources include advertising, sponsorship, membership benefits (eg Amex) and other services. Usage has grown rapidly in the US from 3% connecting to airport Wi-Fi in 2013 up to around 76% today.

Ruckus Wireless

Ruckus seem to have emerged unscathed after two changes of ownership in the past year and are promoting both Wi-Fi and CBRS small cells under their OpenG brand. They think CBRS will start to become available Q1 2018, and know of (but can’t name) five substantial organisations without spectrum who have been actively trialling the system. Significant indoor city-wide trials are about to begin in at least one major city, initially using USB dongles rather than smartphones. The first orders for CBRS small cells are starting to come in.

Ruckus want to position themselves not only as a CBRS small cell equipment vendor but also enablers of the neutral host business model. They think this is especially relevant to small and medium sized office buildings, such as in serviced offices, which will need compatible handsets rather than just dongles.

Fewer 3.5GHz small cells would be needed to cover the same area compared to 5GHz Wi-Fi. Hotels today often have one Wi-Fi access point per room where a CBRS small cell might support 3 rooms. Dual mode units will be common, although a mix of Wi-Fi only and combined CBRS/Wi-Fi should work well. They have developed a small cell as a USB plug-in expansion module which adds CBRS to their Wi-Fi access point.

CBRS is an exciting new opportunity throughout the US. Ruckus commented that some people view this as “Game On”, enabling new and viable business models.

MulteFire Alliance

Athonet provided me with an update on MulteFire progress. This will initially use dongles rather than smartphones, and enable a completely standalone private network (similar to Wi-Fi). Service would be open to anybody, not just mobile operators.

Chipsets should be available later this year, trials in 1H 2018 with a focus on Enterprise and Industrial markets. Where there is a mission critical problem to solve, compared with Wi-Fi which may either not be good enough or is expensive to engineer robustly.

MulteFire has predominantly been focussed on the 5GHz unlicenced band but is also being targeted at the 1.9GHz band for the Japanese market. A MulteFire Open Day in Tokyo last January attracted over 100 delegates, up from a handful in September 2016.

Athonet provide a complete standalone LTE core network solution which is compatible with LTE, MulteFire and CBRS small cells.

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