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Sizing Up Fixed Wireless For Work From Home

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In this and my next four posts, I will be delving into the business of wireless broadband Internet services. The past few years have presented us with numerous different wireless technologies that deliver broadband Internet service to residential and small business customers, including the much-advertised cellular 5G.
 
This normalization of work-from-home (WFH) represents one of the new challenges for IT departments: assisting their users in securing adequate and reliable broadband Internet service to do their jobs. If WFH productivity is tanking due to impaired connectivity, workers will likely be looking to IT for a solution. Of course, IT should also be looking at these new broadband Internet services as an option for either primary or backup data connections at smaller sites, much the way network pros employ cellular data as a backup service today.
 
According to the FCC’s most recent report on Internet Access Services: Status As Of June 30, 2019 (Excerpted in Table 1 below), the fixed broadband Internet market (defined as a data rate greater than 200 Kbps in one direction) is dominated by wired connections. Cable modems represent almost two-thirds of those connections, followed by ADSL and fiber, which share roughly equal amounts of the remaining third. Fixed wireless is 1.3% of the market, so the providers are coming at this from what is essentially no market presence.
 

 
If fiber or cable-based Internet is available, those should remain the primary option for enterprise buyers unless the cost is outrageous or there have been problems with that provider’s service in the past.
 
If fixed wireless is the only option on the table, the person who’s responsible for examining the Internet connectivity options should be ready to prioritize the various wireless alternatives to provide the user with the best assurance of capacity, consistence, and reliability.
 
Why Are We Even Talking About Wireless Internet Connectivity?
There is a growing belief among public policymakers that broadband Internet connectivity is becoming essential in the modern world, but according to the Pew Research Center, nearly 30% of the U.S. rural population still doesn’t have high-speed Internet access.
 
While many of our major sites are now fiber-connected, the infamous “last mile” remains a major challenge Given the cost of stringing cable to subscribers in those sparsely populated areas, wireless has a decided advantage. To my knowledge, no one has ever made money providing basic communications services to low-density areas; that’s why we have the Universal Service Fund (USF).
 
Wireless transmission systems can potentially offer a lower cost per connection, but wireless brings its own set of problems and limitations . Range limits are defined by the radio frequency (higher frequencies lose more power than lower frequencies), but weather, foliage, and terrain characteristics can also impact consistency and reliability. Some of these could be addressed with repeater stations, but that also increases the cost.
 
This cost-density conundrum is one of the key factors that make satellite solutions so attractive. However, the new generation satellite networks like SpaceX’s Starling and Amazon’s Kuiper are barely in the pilot test stage, so the capacity, consistency, and reliability they can deliver is still an open question.
 
The Wireless Outside-In Problem
Regardless of which fixed wireless technology we opt for, they all must address the same fundamental technical challenge: the wireless network is outside, and the users are all inside.
 
Most mobile phone users know that cell phones don’t work well indoors. Any of us who have had the challenge of implementing cellular backup for our data services will be all too familiar with the problem of getting a cellular signal while we’re deep in the bowels of the data center. With this background, it would be logical to ask, “What did they do to all of a sudden make this problem go away?” The answer is that it didn’t. The carriers just decided not to bring it up.
 
That indoor performance issue is not unique to cell phones; all radio signals lose power when passing through building materials. What’s more, the higher the frequency, the more problems you should anticipate. Those very high frequency 5G millimeter-wave transmissions that deliver the highest data rates are pretty much out of the question, even if you follow the wireless industry’s pat answer and place the modem near a window.
 
From a radio engineering standpoint, the preferred solution would be to have a receiver outside with a way (like a low-loss cable) to get the signal inside. That’s basically what we do with cellular repeaters/signal boosters like those from companies like Wilson Amplifiers.
 
All satellite systems will require an outdoor antenna for the foreseeable future. Many purpose-built fixed wireless solutions, like those from Airspan and Cambium Networks, require an outdoor antenna as part of the configuration. An outdoor antenna can also help compensate for signal degradation caused by rain or other path impairments—and would open the door for options like the ability to use those very high-capacity millimeter-wave transmission services.
 
Technology or Economics?
When you get right down to it, the problem of providing good indoor reception can be viewed as much of an economic problem as it is a technical one. If delivering the service has to include professional installation, that’s an expense that ultimately will have to reflect in the cost. When we are already pushing the envelope on meeting the economic challenges of serving less densely populated areas, we don’t need higher costs.
 
Satellite transceivers will likely require a professional or at least “skilled” installers—though SpaceX’s Starlink is currently expecting its pilot customers to climb up on the roof and install their $600 terminal themselves. If the service shows promise, I’m sure you will be able to find Starlink installation services on Angi.
 
Multi-tenant buildings and developments might get to this sooner. Some wireless broadband providers like Starry are targeting multi-tenant buildings and developments so they can install one fixed terminal that uses high-capacity millimeter wave transmissions to serve all the tenants.
 
Conclusion
Coming out of the starting gate, wired Internet providers have a tremendous advantage in having a physical link directly into the home, so they remain our primary option until we start getting reliable performance data on fixed wireless.
 
Over my next few posts, I will be assessing each of the major wireless broadband offerings in these four categories, looking for the kind of consistency, reliability, and support we will need for WFH productivity:
 
  • 4G/5G Cellular fixed wireless access: The idea of using basic cellular data service (Enhanced Mobile Broadband) for home Internet access
  • Satellite-based solutions- GEOS and LEOS: Geosynchronous satellites (GEOS) are pretty much out of the picture due to the transmission delays involved, and the attention is now focused on the low-earth orbit satellite constellations like those being proposed by Starlink and Kuiper
  • Purpose-Built Fixed Wireless Systems: Many of these are descendants of the original WiMAX products and can deliver higher data rates and generally greater range and reliability with outdoor antennas than cellular fixed wireless. Entrants include Airspan’s Mimosa and Cambrian Networks PMP 450 platform.
  • Other Potential Options: For the moment, my favorite in this category is the High Altitude Platform Station (HAPSs), essentially high-altitude unmanned drones, offering a satellite-like coverage footprint but staying within the earth’s atmosphere. The ideas just keep on coming!
 
In networking, the most fundamental thing we provide is connectivity. While our mission has traditionally been to interconnect company facilities, now that we are extending our scope to cover the WFH population. That means we will now need to become more knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of our options in connecting users’ home offices.
 
With the slate of emerging wireless technologies and the ongoing expansion of established wired solutions, this could keep us busy for a while.

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This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.

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