As I wrote in my previous post, LTE-U and LTE Multicast are about to usurp Wi-Fi’s position at the top of the connectivity mountain. But there are some significant barriers to adoption that operators will want to consider.
First, for LTE-U to truly become a reality, operators and chipset and handset manufacturers will need to work together to define requirements and create devices that are optimized for the technology. The problem here is that Wi-Fi has had several years to dig in its heels as the go-to technology for data transfer — it’s literally everywhere, and even if these stakeholders spent the effort to push LTE-U, it’s going to take a long time for it to reach anywhere close to the ubiquity of Wi-Fi. Consider that, in addition to the sheer number of Wi-Fi enabled devices that are available, the Wireless Broadband Alliance and Informa report that the number of hotspots around the world is expected to reach 5.8 million by 2015 – and that’s not counting total number of operator Wi-Fi deployments.
As if that’s not a big enough hill to climb, LTE-U and LTE Multicast will also face the simple fact that, as with any other burgeoning technology, scale will equal commoditization. Adoption will not really take off until it achieves large volumes that can bring price points down to be competitive with Wi-Fi.
None of this is meant to indicate that operators shouldn’t plan for the future — but they shouldn’t sacrifice the present, either. As such, they would do well to prepare for a combination of Wi-Fi and next generation cellular technologies by focusing on deploying software solutions that will allow them to adapt their networks accordingly.
As in many industries, telecommunications organizations have become increasingly dependent on software over hardware. Software allows companies to be more adaptable and flexible. A system built today can easily be made relevant for a decade, perhaps even beyond, through simple software updates. There’s no longer a need to base wholesale changes on the replacement of hardware components; cellular networks are now far more malleable, which means that systems in place today can easily be upgraded as necessary.
Operators should commit to working with manufacturers on software-defined solutions and enhancements to features that can address Wi-Fi needs today, as well as LTE-U and LTE Multicast needs tomorrow. For example, software defined radios can help allow for greater flexibility in the future, while reducing capital expenses right now. They’ll still work appropriately with current Wi-Fi deployments and continue to pay off the investment in those solutions, but they’ll also be ready to make the jump to LTE-U and LTE Multicast when the time is right.
That time may yet be several years in the future, as Wi-Fi isn’t going anywhere, at least not any time soon. It’s the only technology that we can honestly say is embedded in every device – tablets, computers, smartphones, cars, TVs. Even some toasters have Wi-Fi connectivity. That ubiquity is a huge advantage that allows operators access to a massive pool of potential customers. Ongoing Wi-Fi support is further emphasized by continued pushes for improvements to Wi-Fi standards, with a recent initiative calling for peak download speeds to be increased to 1Gbps over multi-WLAN. The FCC also voted in early 2014 to boost capabilities by opening 100MHz of airwaves in the lower part of the 5GHz spectrum. Clearly, Wi-Fi still has a very strong foothold; it’s not going to simply disappear or become irrelevant overnight.
All of that said, history has shown us that the biggest revolutions — and the most successful technology solutions — often start small before taking over. At the end of the day, LTE-U — and, correspondingly, LTE Multicast will assert dominance. It behooves operators to begin planning for that day now, even as they should continue to focus on building out their Wi-Fi networks.
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