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The staggering growth of smart phones, tablets and other mobile devices is sending a massive flood of data through today’s mobile networks. Compared to just a few years ago, we are all producing and consuming far more videos, photos, multimedia and other digital content, and spending more time in immersive and interactive applications such as video and other games – all from handheld devices.

Think of mobile, and you think remote – using a handheld when you’re out and about. But according to the Cisco® VNI Mobile Forecast 2013,  while 75% of all videos today are viewed on mobile devices by 2017, 46% of mobile video will be consumed indoors (at home, at the office, at the mall and elsewhere). With the widespread implementation of IEEE® 802.11 WiFi on mobile devices, much of that indoor video traffic will be routed through fixed broadband pipes.

 

Unlike residential indoor solutions, enterprise and public area access infrastructures – for outdoor connections – are much more diverse and complicated. For example, the current access layer architectures include Layer 2/3 wiring closet switches and WiFi access points, as shown below. Mobile service providers are currently seeking architectures that enable them to take advantage of both indoor enterprise and public area access infrastructure. These architectures must integrate seamlessly with existing mobile infrastructures and require no investment in additional access equipment by service providers in order for them to provide a consistent, quality experience for end users indoors and outdoors. For their part, mobile service providers must:

  1. Offer indoor and outdoor access solutions
  2. Put in place agreements and collaborate with traditional fixed broadband service providers to offload mobile traffic seamlessly
  3. Continue to drive carrier-grade Wi-Fi specifications across traditional indoor access infrastructures (like Wi-Fi Access Point) while meeting the disparate reliability and management requirements of different carriers.

The following figure shows the three possible paths mobile service providers wanting to offer indoor enterprise/public can take. Approach 1 is ideal for enterprises trying to improve coverage in particular areas of a corporate campus. Approaches 2 and 3 not only provide uniform coverage across the campus but also support differentiating capabilities such as the allocation of application and mobility-centric radio spectrum  across WiFi and cellular frequencies. A key factor to consider when evaluating these approaches is the extent to which equipment ownership is split between the enterprise and the mobile service provider. Approaches 2 & 3 increase capital expenditures for the operator because of the radio heads and small cells that need to be deployed across the enterprise or public campus. At AIS, LSI is demonstrating approach 2.

The last but certainly not least important consideration between approaches 2 and 3 is whether these indoor/outdoor small cells employ self-organizing network (SON) techniques. For service providers, the small cells ideally would be self-organizing and the macro cells serve any additional management functions.  The advantage of approach 3 is that it offloads more of the macro cell traffic and makes various campus small cells self-organizing, significantly reducing operational costs for the service provider.

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No, you are not about to read some Luddite rant about how smart phones are destroying our society. I love smart phones and most of you do too. It’s remarkable how quickly we have gone from arguing over the definition of a smart phone to not being able to live without them. In fact, the rapid adoption of smart phones has led to the problem I am going to talk about: smart phones can overwhelm dumb wireless networks.

Many of the networks that carry the wireless data to and from our smart phones are built with chips that were designed before Apple announced the first iPhone® in June of 2007. It takes a year or two to get a new semiconductor chip designed and built. Then another year or two for network equipment manufacturers to get their products into the market. By the time that new equipment has been deployed into networks around the world, five or six years have passed since chip designers decided what features their networking chips would have.

Even the latest 4G networks are built with chips that were designed before Apple invited everyone to store their music libraries in the cloud and before Vine enabled every kid with a phone to create and distribute videos. Today’s networks were not designed with these wireless data applications in mind and they are struggling to keep up.

Making dumb networks smarter
The problem is proving hard to solve because data traffic is growing faster than the obvious ways to cope with it. Network operators can’t simply deliver more network capacity. Available spectrum is limited as is the capital to invest in expanded networks. The seemingly inevitable improvements in technology performance aren’t enough to solve the problem either. Demand for data traffic is growing faster than Moore’s law can answer. Doing more of the same thing or doing the same thing faster isn’t enough. Networking companies need to figure out new ways to handle data. We need to make dumb networks smarter.

When I say “dumb networks,” I am referring to the fact that most of the existing wireless data networks were designed to move a packet of data from point A to point B in a reasonably short time. That’s a fine approach when wireless networks can easily carry occasional stock updates and photo uploads from a few million early adopters. But now, when 90% of handset sales are iPhones or Android® phones, the networks have become overwhelmed with data. Treating data packets with equal importance – whether they are part of a VOIP phone call, business critical data or the 40 thousandth download of a cute panda video – doesn’t make sense anymore.

Prioritizing data for higher speed
As networks get smarter, they will be able to triage data – for example, identifying voice packets to maintain call quality. Smart networks will know if the same video has been downloaded 5 times in the last minute, and will store it locally to speed the next download. Smart networks will know if a business user has contracted for a guaranteed level of service and prioritize those packets accordingly. Smart networks will know if an application update can wait until times of the day when the volume of network traffic is lower. Smart networks will know if a flow of packets contains virus software that could damage your phone or the network itself.

To be smart about the data being transported, networks need a higher level of real-time analytical intelligence. We are now seeing the introduction of networking chips and equipment designed in the era of the smart phone. Networks are now gaining the ability to distinguish the nature of the data contained in a packet and to make smart decisions about the way the data is delivered. Networks are, in a word, becoming smarter – better able to manage the crush of data coursing through them every day. Smart networks may soon be able to stand up to smartphones, and perhaps even outwit them.

 

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