The explosion of wireless services in the past few years makes it obvious that enterprises are increasingly moving to mobile network technologies. After all, if they can deliver the same voice and data services to users in any location that they do via wired networks, why wouldn't they want to do that‾
Last year, an IDC study showed that more than 65% of enterprise users consider their cellular phones as their primary points of contact. Besides that, the presence of wireless laptops in conference rooms has become commonplace.
So far, enterprises have struggled with a key decision about the way forward for mobile services: Do they expand Wi-Fi networks to support ubiquitous voice and data services, or do they use cellular infrastructure‾ New developments in enterprise-class mobility gateways point to cellular infrastructure as the ultimate choice.
Why Wi-Fi Won't Win
The key advantages to using Wi-Fi infrastructure for enterprise voice and data services have been that the enterprise "owns" the network and therefore doesn't pay per-minute access charges, that it integrates with the existing wired Ethernet network, and that it offers more bandwidth than cellular data networks. Although these advantages may yet hold true, there are several disadvantages that outweigh them.
"¢ Wi-Fi voice isn't free. Wi-Fi voice can only be considered free if you don't count the cost of significantly multiplying the number of access points needed for data, buying Wi-Fi-capable handsets for all users, and ongoing maintenance and configuration required to manage channel interference among access points or from other, nearby Wi-Fi networks.
"¢ Wi-Fi voice won't scale. Even the most optimistic promoters of Wi-Fi services recommend that no access point should handle more than a dozen or so voice users. This restriction makes it impossible to provide useful voice services for everyone, particularly in meeting rooms, cafeterias or other locations where the user population varies widely from hour to hour. The only solution is to overbuild the entire office space, which requires large investments that are seldom used in some cases.
Enterprise-Friendly Cellular Infrastructure
Recent developments in cellular infrastructure are eliminating this technology's perceived drawbacks when compared to Wi-Fi while making its traditional advantages over Wi-Fi all the more important.
"¢ Enterprises can now own the cellular infrastructure. Until now, companies have relied on wireless service providers exclusively for in-building cellular service. Even though "friends and family" service plans typically make calls over these networks free, this lack of ownership has scared off many enterprise IT departments. Now, enterprise mobility gateways, pico cells and distributed antenna system (DAS) solutions allow companies to provide ubiquitous cellular voice and data services with their own infrastructure. Rack-mountable pico cells and mobility gateways can be housed in the data centre or a wiring closet, while the DAS distributes the cellular signal via a series of remote antennas placed throughout the building. In addition, new on-site cellular mobility gateways can switch local calls locally without the need to interact with the carrier's network, so these calls are without charge.
"¢ Cellular infrastructure integrates with other enterprise networks. A mobility gateway can integrate with the office IP PBX to allow 4-digit dialling between one enterprise location and any other, even across the world, to achieve true convergence between wireless and wired networks. The same gateway can route data traffic onto the corporate Ethernet network.
"¢ Cellular data service speeds are rising. New protocols such as LTE and HSDPA will deliver up to 100 Mbps of service, equal to Wi-Fi's best. Enterprise cellular solutions will soon support these protocols.
"¢ Cellular scales. Cellular systems have long supported the largest, densest and most demanding user communities, so they can easily support all users in all areas of an enterprise. Once a company selects a base station that has the appropriate capacity, it can extend that capacity anywhere in the building with DAS products. Depending on the area being covered, one remote antenna can support hundreds of simultaneous users.
"¢ Cellular uses existing handsets. Rather than forcing companies to buy new handsets and retrain users, cellular infrastructure allows employees to continue using their current handsets and smartphones.
Fundamentally, the notion of a converged wireless infrastructure implies one infrastructure that integrates wireless voice and data with PBX, wired telephone and wired Ethernet services. Convergence means offering employees one phone number; one phone directory; presence-based applications; and interoffice, 4-digit calling from any location on the premises.
The march toward a fully converged wireless infrastructure has been slowed so far by inadequate Wi-Fi solutions on the one hand and carrier-owned cellular solutions on the other. But with the emergence of enterprise mobility gateways and pico cells, companies can now own their cellular networks and enjoy the benefits of superior cellular coverage and capacity while saving on installation and maintenance costs. Given the superior performance and scalability of cellular solutions, it is obvious that real convergence can only be achieved with cellular infrastructure.
Peleg is vice president of product management for ADC's Network Systems Group. He can be contacted at [email protected].