In-building wireless (IBW) can be a complex solution to consider – even for seasoned enterprise managers, building managers and architects. Defining what constitutes a sufficient solution is not always easy. But regardless of the situation and size of the enterprise space, complete IBW solutions will always depend on more than Wi-Fi coverage alone.
Wi-Fi – just like small cell, DAS and other IBW components – is just one piece of the puzzle. While Wi-Fi has a key place when it comes to providing wireless connectivity for tenants, it isn’t always enough – and is not a substitute for an overlaid LTE or 5G network.
Of course, Wi-Fi is everywhere – and is assumed to be available in most enterprise environments; it’s also easy to set up. However this easy setup is due to Wi-Fi’s use of unlicensed, unregulated frequency bands in the 2.4 and 5.0 GHz ranges – which, while it provides the freedom to set up a network quickly, also means you lose control over network efficiency, security and reliability.
In contrast, IBW solutions use licenced, allocated bands, which provides building owners and managers with the rights to their chosen spectrum. It also provides legal recourse if conflicts with other parties arise, which is not the case with unlicensed, unregulated Wi-Fi.
Because of this, there are multiple Wi-Fi considerations to keep in mind when considering a WiFi network vs. an IBW solution.
When it comes to Wi-Fi, it’s important to keep in mind that as an unlicensed solution, you don’t own your Wi-Fi channels. In fact, while the number of Wi-Fi channels in the lower 2.4 GHz band is limited to three in most global regions, for higher capacity (5 GHz Wi-Fi band) there can be up to 14 channels.
Typically, this enables multiple networks to operate in proximity to one another without interference. However, the lack of oversight with Wi-Fi means that interference and conflicts can occur; often between neighbours. Such scenarios are common in enterprise environments with regular tenant turnover, and require the creation of ad-hoc agreements to coordinate channel selections.
Another cause of Wi-Fi conflict is because Wi-Fi shares the spectrum with Doppler radar which is used by weather stations and airports. In these cases, if interference is detected by a Wi-Fi network, the radar source automatically takes priority, which can potentially reduce overall network performance.
While Wi-Fi is easy to install and configure, keeping it secure is often a different story. Coffee-shop access point spoofing is now fairly common knowledge; a malicious user could potentially mimic the open Wi-Fi access point by establishing their own Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing them to intercept any information shared via the hotspot by other users.
However, despite awareness of such a problem, identifying and shutting down these threats is almost impossible, and is something most enterprise IT departments have no time to address.
When it comes to security, IBW solutions have the advantage, as it is easier to keep track of connected devices – and spot threats fast.
The emergence of Voice over Wi-Fi (which provides the capability to carry voice data from mobile devices over Wi-Fi bands back to the core network), is one example where a Wi-Fi network may appear redundant in comparison with an IBW solution.
Why? Because, while VoWiFi is a useful feature, it comes at a significant cost to performance, and is an inefficient use of Wi-Fi’s limited capacity – even under optimal circumstances. This is because every small VoWiFi packet of information must be preceded by a slowly transmitted header, which at the normal packet repetition rate of 50 times per second, means that the cumulative header overhead for each call consumes a substantial amount of airtime.
Essentially, while Wi-Fi applications are growing fast, not all are ready to cope with growing requirements. Speeds and capacity can still vary greatly in real-world deployments and often change depending on demand, and the distribution of access points and users.
IBW solutions provide very high levels of availability. For example, operator-grade IBW solutions are generally built to deliver ‘five-nines’ of availability (that is, availability 99.999% of the time), equating to just c.5 minutes of downtime per year.
In contrast, even under the best circumstances, Wi-Fi solutions rarely manage ‘three nines’ (99.9%) availability – which can equate to almost nine hours of annual downtime. Even more common, is ‘two nines’ (99%) availability, which can be up to 83 hours of downtime per year; enough to have disastrous implications for enterprise environments such as banks or hospitals.
Deciding the right solution for your needs comes down to understanding the communications needs of enterprise, and whether Wi-Fi can or cannot achieve them.
When it comes to offering low-cost, secure, data-driven access, Wi-Fi will do. However, to handle indoor voice communications, or to offer authentication-free data access to visitors, a dedicated IBW solution is a must. IBW offers clear advantages in security, availability and in simple usage, allowing a cell phone to operate just as it would outdoors in the macro network. In conjunction with the Wi-Fi network, it may also provide coverage during any expected downtime.
Ultimately in most enterprise spaces, a combination of IBW and Wi-Fi solutions is the best option, with each offering its own benefits for productivity, performance and more.
Because of this, it’s important that infrastructure experts and engineers maintain effective, up-to-date training in both solutions, ensuring they not only stay ahead of the curve, but can always offer the best solution for every use case.