Wireless Broadband technologies in the Consumer and Business Marketplace
By Martin Kendrick, Managing Director of Brand Communications
Over the last five years commentator and researcher alike have been predicting the year of data for the cellular market place and year after year the expectation, with the exception of specific vertical sectors, did not turn into reality. In 2004 and 2005 that wait and anticipation was over with the usage of data through various means and channels exploding into the market place with DSL, WLAN and GPRS starting to build a strong user base. Some of the operator community are still waiting for the messiah to come walking over the hill and, whilst delivering salvation to the masses, hope that he may have a little time left for them to run through some of those difficult and possibly suspect 3G business plans.
For those who want reassurance as to the uptake of data only need to go and stand outside PCWorld at 11am on a Sunday morning to see queues of people waiting in line, sometimes in rain and snow, not to by tickets for the latest Robbie Williams concert but for the doors to open so that they can go into the shop and get a new WLAN DSL router. Unless you were Intel you would not have got 5 cents for predicting that kind of phenomenon and "home" user uptake even two years ago and the Centrino is only adding to the accessibility of wireless technologies to these masses.
Broadband has been to the PC what SMS has been to the mobile phone. The Mobile Data Association (MDA) released figures stating the number of SMS messages sent in the UK during 2004 exceeded 26 billion, a staggering figure and the growth which supported and underpinned those figures would not have been possible without national and global interoperability between carriers and providers. The growth in DSL is now also substantial and for BT, the revenues for broadband are rapidly replacing those lost by the reduction in fixed line analog circuits. To replicate the phenomenal growth in SMS in the mobile broadband market, we need to achieve a similar level of interoperability and a seamless roaming experience for the user.
There are a number of factors driving wireless broadband services. The change in regulation by Ofcom has meant that new operators can enter the broadband carrier market at a cost of just £50 without need for partnerships with those who provide and own the last mile of copper to the building. The 5.8G band C spectrum has been opened up for delivery of broadband and with a license fee payable of just £1 per terminal. This market will not be reserved for just rural communities but also in metropolitan areas, many users (including myself) who may have extended BT runs of copper to exchanges resulting in maximum throughput levels of maybe only 512K, could benefit from wireless delivery which will deliver 1Mb or higher.
In the home the initial drivers for WLAN have been one of convenience. Often the point of entry for the fixed line DSL connection may not have been in the best location for working at the computer. A user may well stand in the hall to hold a conversation on a fixed telephone but when it comes to browsing the internet or doing corporate email it is clearly not an option and sitting in front of the TV with fish, chips, a pint of Boddingtons and a laptop is a much more acceptable proposition. Retro cabling a house with Ethernet is a difficult option to justify to the wife when you have still not repaired the door hanging off the cupboard in the kitchen, WLAN removes these domestic politics.
Moving on from the initial drivers for WLAN and the unprecedented acceptance of that technology over the last 12 months, home automation and multimedia are coming on fast. Video as yet has not proven to be anything like the killer app for 3G but in the home it is another matter. 802.11b was not man enough for real quality video experiences but 54G is delivering the minimum 10 to 15 meg of bandwidth required for quality DVD viewing. Ripping of audio and video CD's for archive or playback through the wireless multimedia devices such as those from Pinnacle or Phillips are so easy that they are changing the home environment. This move to centralising media around a computer or "device" presents then a very small step to the final home frontier and that is home automation. Once the public vision of former Orange CEO Hans Snook, intelligent homes and vehicle telematics are now moving from what was often considered hype to reality and the technology making this possible is wireless. The up market capabilities of distributed home HiFi solutions such as Bang & Olufsen (B&O) are suddenly becoming commonplace with wirelessly enabled iPODs and £199 wireless multimedia platforms linking computers to Televisions.
Where does all this leave us? These new capabilities will lead to an additional volume of content, but content originating from the user himself. In Japan, they have had wirelessly enabled taps for years where a user can run his bath to the exact temperature and depth while he is on the train on the way home and waiting for him when he walks through his front door. This capability will become more widespread and access to manage this "content", media or devices will be essential. Mr Corporate is also now starting to realise the benefit of broadband as it enables more efficient and effective home working with home being more like satellite offices with good and secure connectivity for data and easy voice management through VoIP.
Connectivity is available through many mediums, GSM, GPRS, 3G, WLAN (802.11b, 54G, N, MIMO, DSL and Cable are here today, others are arriving such as WiMAX (802.16), HSDPA will start to emerge throughout 2005, mobile WiMAX to the end of 2005 and 2006 and beyond that we are looking at 4G. Other Wireless broadband products are also starting to gain momentum such as that from suppliers such as IP Wireless.
GSM V.110 switched was the main stay of mobile data for about 5 years until the arrival of GPRS. GPRS then opened the eyes of many enterprise organisations to the potential of mobile working, and the networks delivered it to the consumer through WAP browsers in the form of portals such as Vodafone Live and O2 Active. 3G arrived and found itself immediately confronted with competition through Public Wireless LAN's PWLANs. Cheap and easy to setup, PWLAN hotspots are cropping up all over the place. Unlike the WLAN market which has seen its greatest volume spreading into the consumer space, the PWLAN market has mainly been used by the businessman. In the field of public access the key hurdles to overcome have not as many feared been with the technology but rather the myriad of billing and pay access methods and roaming agreements have been the issue. Many times a user may find that by the time he has signed on to a hotspot, that it may have been quicker for him to have done it over his GPRS or 3G connection for which his billing option is already in place. Those that have signed up to services may find that their supplier does not have a roaming agreement with the hotspot provider for the establishment he is in. This frustration is limiting the current use of hotspots but the barrier is being eroded as consolidators such as the Cloud extend their relationships and also as the 3G operators integrate PWLAN into their portfolios and billing engines. As technologies such as EAPSIM become more common, tying a WLAN access bill to a mobile phone account will be more of a practical option but as in the case of the SMS phenomenon, the key to success will be interoperability and roaming.
That then leads us on to the higher bandwidth public bearers such as WiMAX, HSDPA and IP Wireless. There are still some license obstacles or clarifications required for certain applications relating to definitions of what constitutes a mobile device or vehicle and what is a fixed network however these will and are being resolved. HSDPA will provide more bandwidth to the mobile phone or device connected to the phone. As an evolution of the 3G network, its coverage will be a function of 3G roll out. Many in the corporate community currently take the view that as 3G does not enjoy full national coverage that they need to ensure that their applications can run in a 2.5G environment as the mobile worker may find himself in 2.5G only coverage for significant periods of time. This kind of attitude will limit the uptake of 3G and will cause a number of serious questions to be asked as to its application with video messaging being the only real application and the need for that by many, questionable. Clearly we will all use 3G when we are in coverage, but is it a 'must have', perhaps not. There will always be vertical applications and Brand Communications is now delivering 3G as a seamless backup to fixed lines for VoIP calls with the voice traffic being instantly passed to the 3G bearer without even dropping a word in the event of a fixed line failure. HSDPA will encourage many applications such as this but it will start to appeal more to the PWLAN style user who may want that higher bandwidth for his device and corporate access but not necessarily video. Moving on to Wireless Broadband solutions such as IP Wireless; IP Wireless is being deployed by carriers to get around the last mile of copper and delivers a good bandwidth experience. Based on the same mechanisms as 3G IP Wireless can deliver 7 or 8 times that available from 3G, more than HSDPA and often more than is available from local fixed connections such as DSL. Whilst this is used in last mile scenarios, it could start to find itself used more in community or campus applications with the changes in the cost of entry for Wireless Broadband providers, however it does require the user to have an IP Wireless client device and so this will limit its wider and more general use because of lack of widespread penetration. It could start to see application also in M2M applications and telematics. Finally WiMAX, some love it some hate it but most have never experienced it. WiMAX will cause the change in the public space that we have seen in the WLAN consumer space. At present WiMAX and pre-WiMAX devices from such companies as Redline in Canada are being deployed in specific environments involving point to point and point to many points. As it is normally the same manufacturer's equipment on either end of the link, compatibility is not an issue. Brand Communications has successfully used WiMAX as part of the backhaul from train based PWLAN applications combining it with other bearers such as 2.5G, 3G, Satellite and DVB. The real growth in WiMAX will come when Intel introduce a WiMAX capability into the laptop chipset allowing them to capitalise on the success of Centrino. Often the business case for PWLAN's is difficult to ensure but as WiMAX comes onto the market, this case will become more justifiable with the coverage footprint and potential population within it becoming larger and the access point deployment for a unit of area more rationalised. With the introduction of WiMAX equipped laptops the user will be able to roam from location to location more readily and roaming will possibly easier given access points will have coverage of between 1 and 3 Km depending on the location. At European power levels, M2M WiMAX is currently delivering 1 to 2Mb of throughput at 3Km and nearly 70Mb at close range.
In summary, in some ways the nature of pipe is almost academic with the user being able to access various options given the right client device and as equally important, the appropriate access (roaming and billing) capabilities. The WLAN and home media solutions are changing the consumer market and the Wireless Broadband including mobile WiMAX and PWLAN will change the public space and change it from being a limited corporate mechanism to a ubiquitous corporate and consumer access medium and will have a bigger impact on our way of life than maybe 2.5G but certainly 3G. Outside of billing, what is the thing that will make the entire mechanism practical? The answer to that is seamless mobility. The user wants device independent, bearer independent seamless working with a session that is maintained with the same client IP address and a secure VPN that can allow him (or her) to move through environments at will. Given the many players and technologies involved, the way to achieve that is by using a communications overlay that whilst controlling each pipe is agnostic to its characteristics and limitations with the system making almost least cost routing decisions for the user based on availability, performance and cost. Brand Communications has been delivering such a solution since 1992. It has clearly evolved to cater for the "characteristics" of each of the new bearer technologies but is does deliver that seamless experience that is essential in a mixed user and user knowledge marketplace. This then makes VoIP which did have some false starts, something that is and will become more prolific over the coming years. Today, I can make a VoIP call, I can walk from my house WLAN onto a 3G pipe, move into a PWLAN, arrive at my work WLAN and, whilst having transitioned many access pipes, I never drop the call or a word in the conversation. That level of ability will become more available as the Wireless Broadband access channels increase and it will change the way we work and interact with our customers, how we access our home telephone, how we access our work and how we manage our homes and home media. Mesh networks will also come into play with this as we make use of the bandwidth of all the pooled devices around us to get back to host data, again, a mechanism Brand Communications first released in 1993 and which is now becoming more applicable with each day. As someone who has spent his life guarding against hype and trying to ensure the market gets the real picture and so makes the right decisions, I can assure you the reader that this is not hype but where we are today and where we will continue to grow significantly over the next 24 months.
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