Will endless demands on mobile networks hit business users?

Wi-fi's importance to firms needs to be taken more seriously...

Wi-fi's importance to firms needs to be taken more seriously...

Staff and business processes depend on mobile data access. But with increasing demand for wireless, can networks truly deliver the right quality of service, asks Rob Bamforth.

The acceleration of smartphone adoption, increasing use of low-cost laptop dongles and the appearance of wi-fi in all sorts of devices from smart badges and trackers, to tablets and phones, means one thing for networks - much more data to carry in the air.

This issue is significant because despite the advances in wireless network technology - there is no dark fibre in the sky - capacity is limited. With wireline, it is always possible to light existing or dig more fibre or cables into the ground provided you're prepared to pay for it, but wireless networks are ultimately constrained. Apparently demand, thus far, is not.

It may be that demand might change. Perhaps users will get bored or their appetite for buying new data-intensive mobile products will diminish? The evidence from recent launches of devices such as Apple's iPad indicates this possibility is unlikely to come about.

Or perhaps over time, with increases in mobile network tariffs, demand will be controlled by price - no wireless net neutrality then. But that situation would still be like trying to keep a pressure cooker lid on with an elastic band.

Network operators need to stretch their tariff and rules from time to time to win over and accommodate new users, devices and applications, despite how much network resource they will subsequently consume.

That commercial need means continued pressure on precious spectrum and the rest of the network. Squeezing more data into a finite pipe leads to compromises, constrictions or caps. Yet users will not put up with any degradation in the quality of the experience - especially if their work or business depends on it.

The challenges facing mobile cellular networks are complex. Not only with more devices and data consumption, but the usage patterns are becoming harder to predict.

When there was only a single application - voice telephony - it was easier to predict how it would be used and its impact on the network. Now a plethora of applications pass data with and without the knowledge of the user.

Even with voice, the reasons and opportunities to make calls have accelerated. Despite texting, email and messaging people make mobile phone calls for even the slightest of reasons - the classic, "Hello, I'm on the train" - and this phenomenon is especially in evidence when there are many subscribers close together, sharing a common experience, for example, at transport hubs, events or sports venues.

This type of demand has tested voice networks on many occasions, but subscribers are at least clear that a call is made or not, or has been dropped. With data and applications, the effect of such problems can become even more frustrating.

For business use this uncertainty is a real issue. If workers or business processes are coming to depend on mobile data access, can organisations truly rely on networks to deliver the right quality of experience? Operators can no longer assume that...

...coverage is enough. They have to measure and test network performance based on the experience of the user, and this means monitoring end-to-end response time, total application, to client and back.

On the basis of these figures, they are then in a position to provide service assurance commitments and guarantees to their business customers.

Cellular network providers have the advantage - some say otherwise - of being regulated as they are licensed users of spectrum. But unlicensed spectrum is also becoming essential to the business with greater use of wi-fi for in-building, cross-campus data networks, wireless homes and even public hotspots.

Wi-fi is also providing alternatives for phone calls though fixed-mobile convergence when combined with cellular, or alone in a voice over wireless LAN form of telephony.

Whereas once wi-fi could have been considered a 'best efforts' form of connectivity, it is now becoming an assumed and critical element of LANs. No longer simply connecting an office worker's laptop for synchronisation, wi-fi now also provides a platform for voice calls, asset tracking and essential front-line connectivity for a whole variety of needs.

Its importance needs to be taken seriously, and so when wi-fi is deployed, it must be properly measured and assured to a sufficiently high level to meet the needs of the business. That thinking is a step up for many IT departments and, combined with the need to gather assurances about mobile cellular data providers, means those responsible for managing their organisations' mobile IT networks have to change their mentality from meeting technical service levels to meeting user experience criteria.

These requirements may at times seem subjective, and some users are prone to complain even when it is not justified. So if there are problems with current suppliers, talking to vendors who are providing more tangible mobile network assurance solutions would seem to be a good idea.

Quocirca is a user-facing analyst house known for its focus on the big picture. Made up of experts in technology and its business implications, the Quocirca team includes Clive Longbottom, Bob Tarzey, Rob Bamforth and Louella Fernandes. Their series of columns for silicon.com seeks to demystify the latest jargon and business thinking.