Inside Job

Posted on July 22, 2015

Indoor data connectivity: it’s arguably the sternest network challenge facing mobile operators. For all the advances in network performance when conditions are optimum, the laws of physics are no more easily bent than the walls that routinely block cellular signals. Speaking at an event during London Tech Week in June, Three UK’s Director of Network Strategy and Architecture, Phil Sheppard, gave a frank assessment of the problem, as reported in this article from Mobile.

Hard as operators work to deliver indoor coverage, Sheppard said, the mobile network simply cannot do the job in isolation.

“It’s physically impossible to cover every location,” he said, issuing a plea to venue and business owners to help plug the many gaps in indoor cellular connectivity. “I do think there’s some scope for collaboration with venue owners. I think it would be a positive and constructive way of working together.”

Sheppard could hardly have said it better, although he might well have added that it’s financially impossible as well as physically. 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.

Fortunately many venues and businesses are ahead of Sheppard’s call to arms. Amenity Wi-Fi, intentionally shared by all sorts of organizations, is well on the way to ubiquity in many cities. In the largest city that falls under Sheppard’s remit — London — it is readily available in banks and bars, cafes and concert venues, libraries and leisure centers, and countless other high-footfall public spaces.

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.

Wi-Fi’s presence alone does not address the problem entirely, however. What a mobile operator needs if it is going to take advantage of this Wi-Fi is a means to interact with something that is horribly fragmented in terms of ownership and quality. Engaging with every business or venue that offers Wi-Fi is no more realistic an option for an operator than trying to deploy kit to all those places.  And while Wi-Fi may often deliver the superior indoor connection, 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 to the benefit of the end user, which is what Sheppard was calling for, 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 gamble that doesn’t always pay off.

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.

So while there is no doubt that Wi-Fi can deliver the indoor connectivity that Phil Sheppard requires, that connectivity needs to be properly managed if it is truly going to solve the problem he identified. The question is not whether his call will be answered; rather it is how he and his peers will respond to the availability of the resource he’s asking for.