By Dave Fraser, CEO, Devicescape
The 2015 Ofcom Market Report published recently showed a 17.7% increase in LTE availability in the twelve months to May this year, with 89.5% of UK premises now having outdoor LTE coverage from at least one 4G network.
The key word here is ‘outdoor’. Because, for all the tremendous effort that has gone into delivering that improvement, the greatest coverage challenge facing mobile operators still remains; replicating the quality of outdoor coverage inside every home, office and public place in the land.
Mobile and our indoor life
We spend the vast majority of our time, and consume more than 90% of our smartphone data, when we are indoors. So a measure of external coverage, while painting the mobile networks in a favourable light, does not accurately reflect the quality of experience available to smartphone users.
Cellular signals struggle to penetrate buildings, with the problem getting worse the higher you climb through the spectrum bands. Unfortunately for mobile operators, the laws of physics are no more easily bent than the walls that routinely block those cellular signals.
Traditional models of network deployment are simply not applicable to the indoor coverage challenge, thanks to the sheer number of buildings (domestic, commercial, and municipal) in which people require connectivity. It would simply cost too much to deploy owned infrastructure in all of these places.
Indoor coverage “physically impossible”?
This year we have seen Three UK’s director of network strategy and architecture, Phil Sheppard, speak publicly about the problems operators face in delivering indoor coverage; it is “physically impossible,” he said, to cover every location. We’ve also seen EE CEO Olaf Swantee emphasising the frustrations of millions of end users who cannot make a voice call within their homes. And we have seen yet more evidence that the demand for data continues to grow as smartphone penetration climbs.
So how do you solve a problem like indoor coverage? The only logical approach is adaptability to circumstance; we must harness every form of connectivity available wherever the user goes. Despite the problems of in-building provision, cellular coverage doesn’t simply cease at the wall. But when it does degrade, we have to look elsewhere.
Many homes have Wi-Fi networks to which their occupants turn for improved indoor performance, and it was in the context of his company’s Wi-Fi calling launch that Swantee raised the spectre of domestic coverage. But what about all those other buildings in the UK; the public places where smartphone users routinely convene in large numbers? Well, there’s an alternative access resource in these places too, which is Amenity Wi-Fi.
Every kind of business or venue imaginable, from public libraries to leisure centres, banks, pharmacies, and the perhaps more familiar coffee shops, bars and restaurants, makes free Wi-Fi connectivity available to their customers. Increasingly Wi-Fi is felt to be no less important to the experience of these venues’ customers than plumbing and air conditioning.
To give an idea of the scale of this resource, Devicescape’s Curated Virtual Network of intentionally shared amenity Wi-Fi in the UK grew from 17,500 locations in February 2014 to more than 215,000 in February this year. It is now well past 250,000, and this represents just a fraction of total Amenity Wi-Fi capacity in the UK.
Wi-Fi lacking refinement
Wi-Fi’s presence alone does not address the problem entirely, however. It may often deliver the superior connection indoors but the overall experience of Wi-Fi lacks the refinement offered by cellular.
With Wi-Fi, users have to locate a network, identify the correct SSID, manually request access, navigate whatever portals or credentials requests are inserted into the access process, and deal with any quality variations they encounter once they are finally connected. On the cellular network all of these processes are automated, and the experience is managed in real time to ensure the device moves between 2G, 3G and LTE according to whichever is best in the moment.
So on the one hand we have an abundant connectivity resource in Wi-Fi that delivers access where the cellular network desperately needs help, and on the other we have an experience honed over decades that represents the smartphone connectivity ideal.
To integrate the two for the benefit of the end user requires that the indoor coverage provided by Wi-Fi is assimilated into the smartphone experience in such a way that none of the sophistication of the cellular experience is sacrificed.
Access to Wi-Fi must be automated so the user’s intervention is not required. And the performance of the Wi-Fi connection must be understood so the user only connects to high quality networks, and is moved automatically if that quality should drop.
The reality is that most users simply have neither the inclination nor the understanding to best manage these processes, making much of their connectivity a complete guessing game.
Frustrated by this reality, many end users take binary decisions. Our studies have shown that more than 50% of users keep Wi-Fi switched off in public, for example, to preserve battery life or prevent the device clinging to a Wi-Fi location that offers no onward connection. But by applying a little automated intelligence to the management of the Wi-Fi radio it can be activated only when there is a good chance of a good connection; improving both power consumption and connectivity experience.
If users are left to manage such an important element of their own connectivity as Wi-Fi, two outcomes get increasingly likely: either the value they place on service provision will go down, or some other player will intervene to improve the experience.
Neither is good news for an operator community that has already invested billions of pounds to improve the cellular side of the smartphone experience.
Devicescape develops software for wireless networking, based on the IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi standard and other network protocols.