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Network design, dollars impact public Wi-Fi access

User experience with network gridlocks at public Wi-Fi hotspots isn't solely result of technical issues but also financial considerations, observe industry analysts.

When users encounter network congestion while surfing public Wi-Fi hotspots, the problem can be attributed to the cost of network installation and provision as well as the size of the device accessing the Web, according to analysts.

Bryan Wang, Asia-Pacific associate vice president of connectivity research at Springboard Research, told ZDNet Asia that the challenge of installing public Wi-Fi is less about a technical issue than it is about efficiency in terms of utilization and cost.

While more hotspots can be added to minimize Wi-Fi congestion when network traffic gets heavy, this will result in low utilization during low-peak traffic periods, Wang said in an e-mail interview.

Although the extra hotspots can be switched off, from a business standpoint, organizations providing the public access are inevitably still concerned about bandwidth and maintenance costs incurred to keep networks up and running, he said.

J. Ramesh Babu, director of managed services at Cisco Systems Singapore, added that another reason for Wi-Fi gridlock may lie with the fact that the use of legacy or ageing equipment is still prevalent today.

Using old client technology will slow down network performance, especially with the amount of rich media and data being transmitted to mobile devices, Babu said in an e-mail.

He added that challenges associated with the deployment of public or outdoor Wi-Fi networks are surmountable with the right network configurations and tools, as well as proper planning. For example, he suggested that venue proprietors should install a solution that can support a wide variety of devices such as Wi-Fi Internet Protocol phones, laptops and mobile phones that support dual-mode capabilities, and are able to run on both cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

He noted that the range of wireless access point coverage can be affected by structures such as walls, cubicles and metal elevator shafts. There can also be interference due to cordless telephones, Bluetooth and other wireless devices, he added.

The W-Fi service provider can resolve this via tools that can detect and automatically mitigate RF (radio frequency) interferences, by configuring the wireless network to work around the interference source.

Consumers expect Wi-Fi access
Babu noted that access to "pervasive Wi-Fi is a logical expectation" of consumers today, since more enterprises are now mobilizing employees, business partners, customers, and even corporate assets.

Ovum's senior consultant, Craig Skinner, concurred. He noted that the growing use of mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, alongside laptops and netbooks, is fueling demand for Wi-Fi bandwidth.

The Ovum analyst added that public Wi-Fi networks, if designed to do so, can handle high-density traffic from a mix of mobile devices including slates and smartphones, as well as larger devices such as laptops. Reiterating Wang's views about resource requirement, Skinner said the question, however, goes back to how the costs of building such a network are covered.

In an e-mail interview, he explained that it is not "realistic" to expect the same level of network performance at an open access location, where the network is funded by public money, as that provided at a tech conference venue.

He described that oftentimes, public Wi-Fi access is provided free as an incentive to attract consumers to a venue or persuade companies to hold events in one venue over another. But ultimately, the infrastructure and operating costs of providing free public access must still be paid for, Skinner said.

Because users are not directly paying for the service, there is less incentive for the venue operator to spend on providing a high quality of network service, particularly for occasions when heavy usage is expected, he explained.

In addition, the analyst noted that the size of the device--accessing the Wi-Fi network--also plays a part in the quality of access. He explained that the size of the antenna and the power level it transmits, can limit both the range of network detection and level of interference the device can continue to operate in.

Hence, when smaller devices like handsets seem to "struggle" to connect in a high congestion situation, it is a result of design tradeoffs in terms of the size, and not because the network has cut them off, Skinner continued.

Quizzed if consumers' expectations of Wi-Fi service have heightened--given the rise of mobile devices, mobile workforce and even Wi-Fi access onboard airplanes--Springboard's Wang said Wi-Fi is not a mobility solution.

"Wi-Fi cannot support quick hand over from one hotspot to another," he said. "Because of its limited coverage [compared] with 3G or WiMax, if we use Wi-Fi as a mobility solution when we are moving around, it will need a lot of network handover which will take up a lot of network resources. Therefore, Wi-Fi is not a practical technology to be used as mobility solution."