I’ve been out and about a lot in the last couple of weeks – conferences, travel and business meetings. It’s struck me how much more important good data access on the move has become, for both business and personal communication. With 3G cellular networks unable to provide good data service inside many buildings, Wi-Fi is a common alternative, but it falls down in so many ways that it’s become frustrating. Can femtocells satisfy this gap in customer expectation?
Some particular drawbacks I’ve found with Wi-Fi include:
- Security: Many people are simply unaware of the serious security holes when using public Wi-Fi. Your username and passwords can be hijacked, although most financial transactions should be secure. Martin Sawyer shares his insights and suggests that a home VPN might be an answer – IMHO far too complex for the average user. Other risks involve situations whereby laptops can pose as hotspots, tricking you into a “man-in-the-middle” attack to steal your credentials.
- Continuous prompting from iPhone: You can set your iPhone or other smartphone to lookout for Wi-Fi networks, and automatically sign in or prompt you if you want to join. This becomes both tedious and annoying. I’m sure it also affects battery life as it continuously scans and identifies many hotspots.
- Poor battery life: Wi-Fi doesn’t seem to be as power efficient as mobile cellular technology, with my smartphone battery sometimes not lasting a day just because I’m moving around a lot. Where both Wi-Fi and 3G are enabled at the same time, powering two radio systems simultaneously naturally drains the battery more quickly.
- Swamped by high demand: Conferences, busy hotels and other public areas with Wi-Fi often seem to clog up and come to a halt. I’ve sat through several conferences where there’s little or no cellular coverage and the Wi-Fi is simply unusable. Checking email messages required a visit to the street outdoors with the smokers!
- It’s not free! Even when they say so. One motorway service station I visited recently proudly advertises Free Wi-Fi. What they don’t say is that you must reveal and confirm your email address before being granted access, presumably so you can be sent a bunch of marketing spam messages in the future. My nearest pub also proclaims free Wi-Fi, but cuts you off after 15 minutes if you havent’c onfirmed your email address. I would happily accept a usage cap to enforce a fair usage policy in these places, but don’t see why I need to give out my email address. You don’t have to do so when using the toilet/washroom or parking area in such places.
- Dodgy coverage, especially at edge of hotel room coverage: I’ve almost started asking for a hotel room NOT at the end of the corridor/edge of the hotel. Wi-Fi coverage will shrink as traffic levels grow, so that connections that tested well when the system was installed and checked on an individual basis won’t work under heavy load at peak times.
- Access passwords: Many hotels offer free Wi-Fi these days. Sometimes you have to pickup an access code at reception which can require you to wait in line at busy times. Others require you to have an account, so you need to remember your details for each one. When visiting friends houses, it’s not unusual to ask for the access code (which many owners don’t know off by heart and need to be dug out from the filing cabinet). This can be a bit presumptious, inconevnient and imposing – you came to visit them, not check your email, didn’t you?
The effects of these drawbacks prevent me from using my iPhone or laptop when I want to. Specific cases include:
- Shops – I can’t use my comparison app to check prices, read quick reviews before deciding to buy or not. It’s not just about price. I do like to read the reviews on Amazon or similar sites before choosing a specific book, and am prepared to pay more for the convenience of being able to browse the selection and take it away on the spot.
- Hotels – I been frustrated by claimed Wi-Fi service which doesn’t work well/limited to specific areas/is very slow. There seems little alternative after you’ve checked in, with many hotels no longer having the wired internet connection as an alternative.
- Conferences – Apart from the lack of connectivity, I’m also annoyed by pulsing sound on the PA of data traffic sent at high power trying to get through.
- Public transport hubs – Airports and train stations vary widely in the data speeds available.
Wi-Fi could be a lot better (and is in many places)
Wi-Fi does work well in low traffic/low contention areas – such as the home and some offices. It is just unsuitable for high traffic areas. Of course, not all Wi-Fi services are the same - dramatic improvements can be gained by:
- using the latest version of the specifications such as 802.11n (for both access point and end user devices)
- using a more sophisticated Wi-Fi access point with full radio resource management, such as those products made by Ruckus. These are designed to handle 100 or more concurrent connections, arbitrating between users much more effectively than the cheaper domestic products designed for a handful of simultaneous accesses
- making use of the 5GHz spectrum rather than the 2.4GHz, which is less congested and has more channels (although shorter range)
- using an aggregator such as Boingo, The Cloud or iPass which can simplify (or even hide) the login process to each new Wi-Fi access point.
Femtocells offer to overcome many of these constraints
Features built in include:
- Full cellular radio interface which has been honed and refined over many years, designed to accommodate high numbers of concurrent users in variable radio interference conditions
- Secure, encrypted data path from each device to the core network; even the femtocell to operator network connection is also encrypted and secured
- Battery saving operation: No need to have both Wi-Fi and cellular radios powered up on your smartphone, draining twice the juice from your battery. Cellular systems are arguably designed to be more power efficient than Wi-Fi.
- Easy logon: No need to enter passphrases, access point names or register for yet another “free” Wi-Fi service – it just works. (This assumes an open access femtocell, which is likely to be the case in public areas)
Ubiquitous data connectivity
Some people suggest that ubiquitous data connectivity will be see like air-conditioning in public areas in the future – an expected, freely available utility, like hot water in a hotel room or toilets in a restaurant/pub.
Wi-Fi struggles to provide that in congested areas.
Today’s 3G mainstream cellsites can’t compete on cost to deliver excellent indoor data service to this level.
A single public shared femtocell infrastructure
Unlike Wi-Fi, today’s femtocells are tied to a single network operator. You would potentially need to install one from each and every mobile in your store/conference rooms/hotel to provide excellent 3G coverage for all your customers. Even with today’s low priced femtocells, this may seem to be too complex/difficult to achieve.
Perhaps one option is for a new entrant to build out such a network – effectively extending all network’s reach with a shared (and hence) lower overall cost solution. You wouldn’t need much spectrum – perhaps a single 5 MHz carrier would be enough, because all femtocells would operate at very low power.
This isn’t so far away from the deals already in place between mobile network providers and Wi-Fi aggregators. Typically Wi-Fi networks charge a low bulk rate fee for each Gbyte of traffic they offload from the outdoor macrocell network – as long as that’s cheaper than building out more cellsites, then it makes good commercial sense.
With a matched pair of 5MHz of nationwide 4G spectrum being sold for as little as 109K Euros in Holland last month (about 10,000 times less than elsewhere) and femtocells selling in bulk at less than $100 each, the economics might be starting to stack up. I’m sure a few people are considering a business opportunity here. Today, businesses would want to use 3G at current frequencies (so can be accessed by any of today’s 3G devices) rather than 4G – perhaps an option for regulators to take into account as they auction off more spectrum.