By Tracy Ford
We live and work in the digital age. The ability to access information when we want it and how we want it is prevalent across the workplace as well as in our personal lives. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops allow us to be mobile, no longer tied to a cord connected to an outlet. But all of that mobility relies on a strong infrastructure mix of wireless equipment, fiber, and coaxial cable.
Distinctions Between Cellular and Wi-Fi Connectivity
Cellular and Wi-Fi are the two main ways of accessing mobile broadband but each have distinctions. Wi-Fi connectivity uses unlicensed spectrum at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies. These two frequency bands are shared spectrum, meaning no one owns it. In a business environment, the IT department manages the Wi-Fi network and controls which devices can access the network, and build parameters in the network. For example, some IT administrators may block access to certain websites, or different types of employees may have different levels of access to information within the network.
In contrast, cellular carriers lease licensed spectrum from the federal government and only allow their customers to access the network. Businesses today either supply work-related cellular devices to their employees or allow people to bring their own devices into the workplace. Employees want access to both Wi-Fi and cellular networks when they are at work. If too many devices are trying to access the Wi-Fi network, it can get bogged down, so some people will turn off the Wi-Fi connection and use cellular frequencies (aka “use mobile data”) to gain connectivity.
To date, Wi-Fi connections have mostly been data-centric. Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) is offered by some wireless carriers. However, Voice over Wi-Fi connectivity typically does not have the same quality of service standards of commercial cellular networks. While small venues with limited numbers of employees may be able to get by with a Wi-Fi-only solution, mid-sized and larger venues likely will need a combination of cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity to offer their customers robust mobile broadband connectivity. Increasingly, enterprises that serve customers, like shopping malls, healthcare facilities and others are providing customer-facing Wi-Fi connectivity as well as an amenity for their customers.
In-Building Cellular Solutions
Some building materials such as concrete, low-emission glass, and aluminum, make it difficult for the RF cellular signal to get inside a building. Further, too many employees on either network (cellular or Wi-Fi) simultaneously can slow the networks down. In those cases, adding an in-building solution can augment the macrocellular network — the larger network that consists of towers and rooftop antennas.
In-building solutions are generally categorized in the following:
Distributed Antenna Systems: A DAS distributes RF signals from a central point to antennas located throughout the facility to provide ubiquitous coverage and capacity. They are primarily used in large buildings, stadiums, public spaces, airports, and outdoor environments. DAS networks can accommodate a large number of people and a variety of frequency bands and technologies. They can be designed to house all wireless carriers, which is often referred to as a neutral-host design. A DAS also can scale so new carriers or frequencies can be added to the system after it has been deployed.
Repeaters and Bi-Directional Amplifiers (BDAs) boost the cellular signal by rebroadcasting it inside the building from an existing cell site. They are coverage-only solutions. Operators must approve BDA deployments as they can interfere with the macrocellular network. Depending on the services in the area, multiple BDAs might be needed to cover the area adequately.
Small Cells is an umbrella term given to microcells, metrocells, picocells, and Enterprise Radio Access Networks (E-RAN). These are operator-controlled, low-powered radio access nodes, including those that operate in licensed spectrum and unlicensed carrier-grade Wi-Fi spectrum.
Traditional small cells are typically low-power radio access points designed to increase coverage and capacity within a short range and can handle a limited number of users; they generally have a range from 10 meters to several hundred meters. Some solutions can scale to cover very large venues and thousands of data sessions. Small cells are generally indoor, premise-based deployments that go beyond a home-office environment.
Ford is director of the HetNet Forum at the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA). The HetNet Forum is a membership group of WIA dedicated to the advancement of the heterogeneous network. Ford works with its members on strategies and programs to continue to advance DAS and other small-cell solutions as a viable complement to traditional macro cell sites and a solution to the deployment of wireless services in challenging environments. Ford has spent more than two decades covering the rapidly changing wireless industry. A graduate of the Minnesota State University-Moorhead, she holds a B.S. degree in Mass Communications with an emphasis on public relations.