Recent breakthroughs could mean a revival of Wi-Fi's role in the provision of broadband to more remote communities, says Jim Calderbank at Ruckus Wireless
Many rural and less developed areas in Europe are still denied the high-speed broadband access that cities and towns are now enjoying. While the abundance of fixed-line infrastructure in well-populated areas made it relatively easy to offer broadband, it's a very different story outside these areas. A multitude of rural communities have been left in the slow lane when it comes to bandwidth, and perhaps of greater concern, even some homes and businesses in built-up suburban areas don't have access to adequate broadband connectivity.
Rolling out additional fixed lines to provide universal high-speed broadband access will always be difficult due to the expense and upheaval involved, particularly when it comes to less densely populated areas. This is a big stumbling block for carriers looking to grow their subscriber base, and the race is now on to tackle the problem and find a way of extending broadband services into new and under-served areas.
While traditional Wi-Fi has long been dismissed for the task due to widely documented problems with unreliability and interference, recent breakthroughs have rendered it capable of providing wire-like reliability over large distances. This presents carriers with an exciting prospect - the technology is by far the most economical means to deliver more bandwidth, to more people, in more places. If it can also deliver on the last-mile access needed to augment and expand fixed-line broadband networks, it will have the crucial winning formula carriers are looking for.
Wi-Fi is undoubtedly the connection of choice nowadays. Every imaginable type of handheld device is embedded with Wi-Fi, and users increasingly expect to be able to access wireless broadband at home, in the workplace and in public venues.
The problem with this is that Wi-Fi has historically been plagued by problems with inconsistent performance and poor signal range - both of which are caused by interference. Because Wi-Fi uses unlicensed radio frequencies (spectrum) within the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz ranges, any noise or obstacle can cause severe problems for all users. This situation certainly isn't helped by the multitude of mobile devices hitting networks, all at the same time.
Contrary to popular opinion, 802.11n also exacerbates this problem. The new standard now increases the capacity of Wi-Fi technology from 54 megabits per second (Mbps) to 300 or more, but it has a nagging blind spot - interference caused by neighbouring devices that operate in the same unlicensed spectrum. With 802.11n there are now multiple Wi-Fi signals being transmitted in all directions, each of which can be interfered with before reaching their destination. The reverse is also true; multiple radios in each 11n device make it a more potent interferer than its predecessors.
To make matters worse, 802.11n devices are nearly two to three times the cost of older 802.11a/b/g devices. And despite vendor claims to deliver theoretical maximum throughputs of 200, 300 and even 600 Mbps of performance, users never see it, ever. If something could be done to offer 802.11n equipment at 802.11g prices with better range and reliability, then the market will run, not walk, to install the new technology.
Luckily, this is happening. New solutions that combine high-speed 802.11n technology with intelligent antenna designs and innovative dynamic beamforming software are overcoming interference problems to deliver more extensive, stable coverage than conventional Wi-Fi systems.
Dynamic antenna systems also enable more efficient spatial reuse in wireless mesh networks - by varying the direction of each packet transmission, adjacent mesh access points (APs) can often transmit simultaneously on the same channel to maximising network capacity. Dubbed "Smart Wi-Fi", this revolutionary technology extends signal range by up to a four-fold increase without wasting signal on areas where it is not required.
So, Wi-Fi can finally deliver the level connectivity that has always eluded it. It's reliable; it eliminates interference; and it harnesses the power of 11n into the bargain. But how is it going to help carriers augment their fixed-line broadband networks?
We're seeing a departure from traditional broadband access solutions that blanket large geographies with expensive access and backhaul equipment that takes years to deploy. Until recently, the industry has lacked end-to-end Wi-Fi access solutions that can provide the missing link to offering broadband data services in rural and less developed areas. Without them, Wi-Fi wouldn't be able to offer the necessary range needed to extend services beyond the realms of wired networks, but we're now witnessing the rise of complete solutions that are bridging this gap and taking Wi-Fi from underdog to major player in the broadband arena.
The new end-to-end solutions are ideally suited for less densely populated areas where there are still huge opportunities for broadband access, but where installing fixed-line or traditional wireless broadband technologies is often not possible or cost-prohibitive. Designed to let operators quickly deploy reliable wireless coverage and capacity at the lowest possible cost per bit, Wi-Fi can now address the massive opportunity for high-speed data services that alternatives such as WiMAX cannot due to the huge start-up costs and deployment complexities involved.
Cost-effective "build-as-you-grow" models for offering wireless broadband data services in developing urban environments dramatically cut the capital costs of broadband infrastructure, enabling carriers to build out their networks for a fraction of the cost of alternative approaches.
As Wi-Fi operates in an unlicensed spectrum, it can be rolled out anytime, anywhere, making it the ideal choice for carriers looking to seize new market opportunities. What's more, Wi-Fi can be deployed in months, not years. Smart, hybrid meshing and simple point-to-point backhaul designs make for straightforward deployment - with no PhD in radiofrequency physics required.
Armed with meshed Wi-Fi access points, high-speed wireless backhaul, customer premises equipment and comprehensive network-wide element and service management, carriers are beginning to exploit the low cost and near universal appeal of Wi-Fi to extend fixed-line networks into developing areas. These new solutions enable carriers to speed up their time to revenue and profit by incrementally building out their infrastructure from concentrated areas where people eat, shop, live or congregate. APs can be added quickly to increase capacity as business grows, enabling providers to reduce capex from billions to millions.
With its reach and throughput, this new breed of Wi-Fi provides carriers with a way of bridging community broadband networks cost-effectively and with no compromise to performance. Lower cost backhaul, plus the sheer reliability of "smarter" solutions, will undoubtedly make it a winner in markets where installing more fibre is too expensive, not to mention inconvenient.
Jim Calderbank is director of enterprise sales EMEA at Ruckus Wireless