Is LTE-U Really Wi-Fi’s Great Challenger?

Is LTE-U Really Wi-Fi’s Great Challenger?

So I will admit I am writing this in a fit of pique.  Today Bloomberg published this preposterous piece of marketing flimflam claiming that LTE-U has the potential to replace or drown out Wi-Fi.  I am not sure if the consultants quoted in that article are drinking kool-aid together, but I certainly feel like they have missed some key points.

So I am going to ask one very simple question:

What does LTE-U enable that Wi-Fi doesn’t?

Answer: The ability to seamlessly charge a customer for its use, without any knowledge, or intervention required by the customer.

OK, so that’s a pretty big carrot for the mobile operators! I mean imagine.  They could give a customer an unlimited data plan, the subscriber can move anywhere around the mobile network, indoors and outdoors.  Mobile operators finally get to remove the need to deploy Wi-Fi and the motivation for subscribers to use it in the first place.  LTE-U keeps them on the mobile network and they can do it cheaply with the unlicensed 5GHz spectrum!

Holy crap! Wi-Fi is dead yo! We comin for you Wi-Fi!  Cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war!

Ahhh. Indeed. This is exactly the kind of blinkered thinking demonstrated by mobile operators, the 3GPP and anyone involved in mobile telecommunications that causes me to sneer.

Let me ask another question:

What does Wi-Fi provide that LTE-U doesn’t?

I hope you’re ready.  School is commencing.

Local Area Networking

Contrary to the opinion of those who move exclusively in mobile operator circles, Wi-Fi networks are actually not only built to handle Internet bound traffic from hotspot users and subscribers.  In fact that is likely an incidental service that resulted from what they were actually developed to provide.  The primary purpose of a Wireless LAN is to allow mobility over a venue’s own local area network.  Services enabled by Wi-Fi or WLANs include:

  • Corporate / Operational Communications
  • Security Systems / Services
  • Video Surveillance
  • Building Automation
  • Internet of Things Applications
  • Voice over IP
  • Touch to Talk services
  • Real Time Location Services (Security Personnel, Doctors, Nurses, Asset Tracking…)
  • Digital Advertising Boards
  • Point of Sale Terminals
  • Ticketing Machines
  • Medical Devices
  • Back Office Connectivity for Stores / Shop Fronts
  • Location Based Services / Location Tracking (location analytics, more asset tracking etc)
  • Public Internet Access (The ONE thing LTE-U actually currently enables)
  • Targeted Digital Advertising
  • Customer Engagement
  • Marketing Campaigns
  • … and any other service you recently used on or integrated with a Wireless LAN.

LAN connectivity is a fundamental and critical function that LTE-U simply cannot provide in its current form.  Wi-Fi allows you to setup a radio and plug it directly into your Enterprise LAN.  LTE-U can’t do that.  LTE-U traffic must go via the mobile operators’ Packet Gateways which means all traffic gets hoovered up, sent into some operator’s core network and is then popped out on a public IP in some APN based on who your sim card says you are.  Good luck getting back to the LAN with a reasonable latency.  Also, please explain the complicated architecture, SLAs, agreements, firewall rules / VPN tunnels and identity management that a mobile operator would have to implement to get a heterogeneous group of SIM authenticated users back into a venue’s LAN from multiple APNs.

LTE-U is coming and it is indifferent to your Enterprise LAN, distinctly unfriendly to your Wireless LAN and it could arguably interfere with the very wireless networks that most venues depend upon to operate on a day to day basis.  Which brings me to my next point.

Value to the Venue/Business Owner

Time for another question…

If you were a venue owner, with a WLAN that you used for a mixture of corporate, operational and public access use cases, would you be happy about LTE-U being installed in your building?

What value does LTE-U actually add to a venue?  Sure people will be walking around with smiles on their faces as they stare obliviously at their phones.  But what do I get out of allowing LTE-U in my Office, School, University, Warehouse, Logistics Center, Hospital,  Shipping Port, Airport, Care Facility, Residence, Stadium, Convention Center, Mall, Coffee Shop or Train Station?  I’ll probably get a ticked off IT engineer and a slew of complaints from all my tenants who are currently using Wi-Fi for business related functions.  I have no doubt, LTE-U will find some use in public venues.  But in my office? Where it effectively DOS attacks my WLAN with radio interference on a duty cycle determined by the mobile operator?

When LTE-U is allowed into a venue, the venue owner will ultimately have to accept some form of performance degradation on the Local Area Network, for which they could charge a sizeable rental fee.

LTE-U deployments are likely to be hobbled by high rental costs and restrictions on the density of their deployments, in an effort to mitigate interference with existing WLANs in the building.  It also means that operators will likely have to share LTE-U installations using Neutral Host architectures.  Limitations on deployment density and spectrum usage enforced by the venue owner and tenants will cause LTE-U deployments to suffer congestion just like the outdoor macro network does.  Don’t like it?  The venue owner has every right to show you the door.  You’re not hobnobbing it at MWC anymore Dorothy.  Site acquisition is hard when you’re pissing people off.

Ubiquitous Device Support

Many of the top end smartphones like the iPhone 7, Galaxy S7, Google Pixel and others already contain LTE modems with support for LTE-U.

Here are some useful links:
https://www.qualcomm.com/products/snapdragon/modems/4g-lte/x12
https://www.qualcomm.com/products/snapdragon/modems/4g-lte/x16

But these are the latest, greatest phones.  And it’s just the phones.  There is no major existing use case outside of it.  If you want your new technology to wipe out Wi-Fi, you need to be in every phone, every tablet, every laptop, every mini PC, every gosh darned thermostat, camera, doorbell, pet cam, smart plug, tv and a bazillion other things that didn’t come up on Google’s suggested search items.

Connect Devices without Sim Cards

At this point, if you don’t have a sim card, you can’t connect to LTE-U.  Market researchers IDC expect cellular connected tablet devices in 2019 will still account for less than half of all tablets.  Granted many consumers will simply tether their devices,  but that would ultimately load the LTE-U cell to the point where consumers will want to cut back over to a faster Wi-Fi network on a different channel.  Multefire is one technology which could remove the need for a sim card, but nobody seems to be rolling that out just yet and device support is still a problem.

Low Cost Wireless Access

In the article above there is a claim about the cost of LTE-U small cells.  The estimate is that deploying approximately 24 LTE-U radios is comparable to the cost of deploying 80 Wi-Fi access points.  Which Access Points?  High End Enterprise APs that are worth ±$1500 each?  Or low end SMB entry level APs that sell for around $150 each?  There is a big range in price points for Wi-Fi Access Points and that is a great thing! It means that just about anyone can find something that will work and fit their budget.   There is no such range of pricing and features on LTE-U today.  I am also certain nobody would be investing in this technology if the starting price of the first LTE-U AP to market was only $450 (wink).

Cheap International Roaming

This is hardly a technical constraint. but still a valid one when considering the use cases of LTE-U.  If you want to hop onto an operator’s LTE-U network overseas, sure go right ahead, so long as your home operator has a roaming agreement that doesn’t utterly annihilate your bank balance with fees as high as $10.00 per Megabyte.  Quite seriously, where I come from, if you don’t activate a special “travel saver” option for about $3 per day, they hit your bank account with the Hammer of Thor.  Who on earth connects to a mobile operator overseas with data roaming enabled when you know there is free Wi-Fi somewhere?

Obviously, the solution to this particular problem is a simple business decision (har har), just make cheaper roaming agreements.  Some of you reading this may not have this problem.  But really if the operators wanted to do this internationally, they would have done it already.

Mass Customization

One of the most overlooked advantages of using a Wi-Fi network anywhere is that Venue / Business Owners are free to build an almost infinitely customizable network for all of their internal IT needs and public access services.  Business owners can choose from a plethora of architectures, vendors and solutions providers to build something that meets their exact requirements.

The only initiative that could enable this is the Multefire Alliance who have only just recently released their 1.0 specification. They have some a reasonably impressive member list,  but I’ve seen groups with impressive member lists before.  Importantly there are other technologies out there like Ruckus Wireless’ OpenG that uses the CBRS band for Neutral Host Small Cells and opens up new spectrum!  Either way, LTE-U initiatives have a lot of ground to make up and a big ecosystem to develop within two years before 802.11ax comes wandering round the corner.

Thus far with only Ericsson and Nokia having approved equipment in this space I cannot see how LTE-U will deliver a remotely attractive enterprise use case to snuff out the venerable Fi.

In Conclusion

To think that LTE-U could somehow match Wi-Fi’s depth and breadth of applications for the enterprise in only a few short years is a pipe dream.  Mobile Operators generally have no business interests in common with business / venue owners and typically want as little to do with their enterprise business needs as possible.  You’re never going to be happy with the one size fits all approach that a mobile operator will take to solving what they see as their biggest problem.

The most interesting technology in the LTE-U space right now is actually MulteFire which really could enable something like LTE-U or LAA (which doesn’t affect Wi-Fi as badly) for enterprise use cases.  But there is little evidence right now to demonstrate that this technology will truly get off the ground before the marginal performance gains it delivers over Wi-Fi are matched by newer generations of Wi-Fi equipment.  Until that point, LTE-U and LAA are going to be relegated to the Service Provider segment which by all accounts is only a fraction of the overall WLAN landscape and operators trying to install it will have an uphill battle with venues who already have a WLAN that delivers business value.

That’s it, Rant Over.

It is also worth mentioning that Dean Bubley did a great job of breaking the same topic down here.

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