Unlicensed spectrum technologies have come a long way from being the disruptive younger sibling to licensed spectrum technologies. Today, unlicensed technologies are playing a fundamental and exciting role in pushing the boundaries of the wireless experience. In fact, the industry is quickly recognising the importance of convergence and coexistence between unlicensed and licensed spectrum, and the role that these technologies will play together within the wireless broadband ecosystem.
The coexistence and increasing interworking between licensed and unlicensed technologies has already driven considerable change in the industry – from next generation hotspots to voice-over-Wi-Fi – and convergence will continue this trend between now and 2020. Whether that is 5G, IoT, or smart cities, full convergence and coexistence will greatly increase capacity and spectral efficiency for all types of wireless service providers, as well as enable new services and new levels of quality of experience (QoE).
But with the lines between unlicensed wireless and licensed wireless technologies blurring, how exactly is convergence and coexistence driving positive change in the wireless broadband industry?
The path to 5G
Coexistence and full convergence will go far beyond what we are seeing today where mobile operators offload data to Wi-Fi, or fixed-line operators access licensed spectrum through MVNO deals. In fact, alternatives are already appearing to the traditional options of a long-term spectrum license acquired at auction, or completely unlicensed bands in which anybody can operate. New options which can support more flexible use of different spectrum include shared access, light and short-term licences, and dynamic access on an on-demand basis.
Carrier aggregation is another technique which will allow different channels to be bonded either in the same band or separate ones. Initially, aggregation has been between carriers in either licensed or unlicensed spectrum, but the ability to bond licensed and unlicensed bands will be critical for next generation wireless.
All these trends will feed into what will become the 5G platform which draws on a huge pool of spectrum and where there are no barriers between licensed and unlicensed bands. This huge pool of spectrum will in turn support key 5G concepts like network slicing, in which a virtual ‘slice’ of the network is allocated to an enterprise or service for as long as required, in the best available spectrum, and with the optimal network characteristics for that particular application.
All existing networks, such as Wi-Fi, LTE, and M2M systems, will continue to evolve towards the next generation of wireless, supporting new capabilities and services in the short term as well as laying foundation stones for the future.
The importance of Wi-Fi
Two trends which continue every year are the rise of wireless data usage – with a majority of that being on Wi-Fi – and the growth in Wi-Fi hotspots to help support that usage in public places. But as we move towards a multi-spectrum, converged world, things become more complex. This is because Wi-Fi and cellular are no longer an either/or – users move between them, and between wireline connections on a constant basis, sometimes by their own choice, and sometimes directed by an automatic ‘always best access’ system.
There have been several important developments in the past year in carrier Wi-Fi – that is, Wi-Fi which is deployed by service providers for public use, and increasingly with carrier-grade capabilities such as seamless access, assured quality if service and high levels of security.
In a world where many different types of spectrum and networks increasingly work together, Wi-Fi is going to continue to play an important role – especially in the development of the heterogeneous network (HetNet). The coexistence achieved through the HetNet, where multiple connectivity protocols and spectrum bands are managed from a common core network, is going to be instrumental for IoT services. This is because IoT services will be very diverse in their network requirements, which means many providers will want to take advantage of the different capabilities of various protocols to support optimal quality of service and economics.
Enhancing smart cities
An important outcome of convergence will be that far more industry segments can take advantage of wireless connectivity to enhance their own business cases and services. Sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, transport, and consumer content all expect to connect to a far wider variety of objects, enabling them to drive efficiencies, automation, intelligence, and new services throughout their ecosystems.
This will go beyond simply providing wireless broadband access for customers and staff. Industries and cities will be able to develop services that are specific to their requirements, connecting many items for the first time and accessing connections which are tailored to their usage patterns. This could be a high reliability, low latency link for remote health monitoring, or a long range, low power connection for smart metering.
For smart cities to be a success, it is crucial to combine a pool of different technologies – from sensors to wireless broadband networking, optical networking, wireless sensor networks and wireless computing, mobile applications, location based services. In order to make smart cities a reality, this not only means a converged connectivity layer that allows these technologies to work, but also a wide range of technologies and applications that can relate to one another, such as energy, traffic and transport, healthcare, and public safety.
Quite simply, without the convergence of licenced and unlicensed spectrum technologies 5G, IoT and smart cities will not be economic or practical. All of these innovations will depend on different unlicensed technologies coming together and working with licensed networks, enabling new performance levels and flexibility for service providers. Not only will convergence drive the next generation of wireless technologies, including the HetNet and network virtualization, but it will be instrumental for IoT connectivity and smart cities. This, in turn, will lead to 5G – an end-to-end platform will be able to thrive in unlicensed as well as licensed spectrum, building on a long history of innovation in the Wi-Fi community.
Shrikant Shenwai is CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, an industry association founded in 2003 to promote interoperability between operators in the Wi-Fi industry.
Filed Under: Telecommunications (Spectrum)