In-building cellular service quality appears to have been noticeably degrading over the last year. This is apparent from an increase in dropped calls, generally poor voice connections (especially uplink), intermittent indoor data connectivity, with text messages - even incoming calls - not getting through.
CIOs, property owners, hotel managers and other Enterprise users now seek cost effective solutions that would deliver reliable in-building cellular service – many would even be willing to pay for or contribute to the system installation. Cisco makes the bold claim that the incremental cost of adding cellular service to a new Enterprise Wi-Fi deployment can be as low as 20%. This reinforces how cost effective small cells can be, but are network operators grasping the opportunity quickly enough? Should Enterprises take matters into their own hands, self-installing cellular equipment and simply asking the operators to adopt and commission it? What tools and processes are needed and what practical implications arise?
In a brand new ThinkSmallCell White Paper, we ask what it would take to achieve "The Enterprise - Unlocked".
A growing problem indoors
Poor in-building cellular services becomes more significant as we connect fully wirelessly at work. A common combination today mixes Wi-Fi for laptop/smartphone data with 3G for direct voice calls and accessing data on the move. Rapid adoption of tablets exacerbates the demands on corporate IT departments, which are expected to ensure adequate wireless connectivity throughout business premises (and not just in meeting rooms or public spaces).
Service quality inside buildings is more difficult to maintain than before for several reasons, primarily due to the:
- Change in construction materials that are used for new buildings and designed to make them more energy efficient, increasing the RF isolation from outside and making it more difficult for cellular service to penetrate indoors.
- Vastly increased data traffic demands, from data hungry devices and multiple devices per person, outstrip additional capacity available from existing cell towers
- Greater reliance on wireless devices during our daily lives increases the significance of poor service quality
Slow takeup compared to Enterprise Wi-Fi
Take-up of Enterprise Small Cells has been slower than many of the early analyst forecasts, for reasons which are less to do with technical capabilities or equipment price and perhaps more to do with lack of marketing drive from operators, lack of scalable processes (from sales through to installation and on-going support) and lack of a clearly understood and adopted strategic business cases.
While the cellular industry moves slowly to adopt Enterprise Small cells, we've seen Wi-Fi deployments grow quickly to provide quality and low cost in-building data connectivity. ABI Research forecasts that the installed base of carrier-deployed Wi-Fi hotspots will grow from 4.2 million at end 2013 to 10.5 million by end 2018. That's a small proportion of the 139 million Wi-Fi access points shipped during 2013, and still significantly fewer than the installed base of femtocells or macrocells.
The quality and capability of Wi-Fi has continued to improve and now forms a significant part of our total data communications. More than half the data sent to/from smartphones goes via Wi-Fi rather than cellular. 64% of hotels offer free Wi-Fi and 38% of hotel guests see lack of Wi-Fi as a deal-breaker. The unregulated and low cost nature of Wi-Fi has enabled rapid mass deployment that in most cases bypasses the cellular operator.
Should Building owners become more proactive?
An alternative could be for building owners and IT departments to install their own Small Cell solutions. These could be engineered and deployed by in-house staff or 3rd party systems integrators, ready to be commissioned and integrated with external mobile networks. This is the norm for other utility building services, such as water, electricity, gas and even fixed line telecommunications services. Such an approach could rapidly accelerate take-up of cellular in-building solutions and complement the extensive use of Wi-Fi.
In a new ThinkSmallCell white paper, we consider whether property owners and CIOs, frustrated with progress and the available options open to them today, should take a more proactive role in Enterprise Small Cell deployment. Could we see buildings being equipped with their own cellular network equipment, ready to be commissioned and adopted by mobile operators? What are the operational and commercial barriers to making this happen?
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White paper "The Enterprise - Unlocked" is written and published by ThinkSmallCell, sponsored by Cisco and iBwave.