7 Questions for IT Managers to Ask
Your enterprise is likely going mobile. But if RF matters aren’t your IT department’s forte, and you need to deliver dense cellular coverage and capacity throughout your facility, perhaps you should consider a managed mobility service. But from whom?
The entity perhaps best equipped to help you bring 3G/4G infrastructure indoors – at least on paper – is a mobile network operator. The simple reason is 3G and 4G services use licensed wireless spectrum, and mobile operators have exclusive rights to the spectrum they have licensed. So whatever road you take to get strong cellular signals throughout your building and campus, you must do so with the operator’s blessing, or you face the possibility of paying a fine or being shut down.
All kinds of managed network services from carriers have been around for a long time, from managed router services to network-based firewall services. Why not managed in-building/on-campus cellular services?
Changing Mobility Landscape
Historically, the mobile network operators have tended to focus on consumers, leaving business-class managed network service issues to their wired counterparts. Increasingly, though, as usage trends create greater requirements to bring mobile WAN signal and increased capacity to your premise, new service models are emerging. Many of the mobile operators already offer managed Wi-Fi services. Yet to date, business-specific cell coverage assistance from operators has largely been limited to very large enterprises with deep pockets serving tens of thousands of paying customers that cost-justify the operator’s attention.
Smaller businesses – and even smaller locations of large businesses – haven’t had many options. It’s time to take the operator to task on this matter: there are now more affordable down-scale infrastructure options creating new business model opportunities for carriers that could benefit your company.
Should you look into having a mobile operator assume your on-premises mobility installation and management? When considering outsourcing, in general, most IT departments ask: Do we have capex budget, or prefer to move capex into opex? Do we have the necessary in-house expertise? How will running things ourselves affect the bottom line?
These questions still apply. In addition, here are some must-ask questions about managing your mobile enterprise:
1) Do we need to deliver better cellular signals in a building or elsewhere on campus? This is a fundamental “needs” question, and part of your answer depends on your policy for supporting mobile WAN users at work. If you do intend to support them, how is your coverage now?
If you’re located near a macro cell tower and have a building made of penetrable materials, you might already have pretty strong coverage. But if you have weak in-building penetration and/or you see your number of mobile WAN users and applications growing, you might want to plan ahead to increase capacity and coverage on your premises.
2) Do you have a bring-your-own device (BYOD) policy? You might not support certain BYODs on your internal network and/or you might have a mobile app sandboxing strategy to deliver limited access to unmanaged BYODs. So some users will stay on the mobile WAN because they prefer to use the device of their choice, even if it means giving up some access. Still others will stay on the mobile WAN because some features on certain mobile devices simply don’t work behind the corporate firewall. Either way, you now have a mobile challenge on your hands.
3) Are you looking to phase out wired desk phones? Robust mobile network coverage and capacity everywhere are necessary for strategies that replace legacy wired phones with devices using mobile WAN, and/or Wi-Fi, as their transport.
4) Do you have revenue-generating workers, such as a sales force, that insist on using smartphones or tablets, and expect them to work inside your offices? Of course you do. As AT&T has recently reported, up to 80% of all voice and data connections on its network are initiated from inside buildings. Do you want to be the mobile operator inside your enterprise?
5) Do you have customers or guests who come to your offices or stores expecting wireless access? Your company might even supply mobile applications that these guests use when in your store. If you fit this profile, you need in-building mobile WAN coverage.
6) What are the comparative costs of enhancing mobile coverage and capacity indoors yourself, versus seeking a managed mobility service solution? This is a biggie, and the answer depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Your goals will drive your equipment and service choices. The primary in-building service choices are traditional distributed antenna systems (DASs), and small-cell technologies such as femtocells and enterprise radio-access networks (E-RANs).
- DASs are optimized for fairly large facilities. Traditional DAS setups usually run about $2.50 to $5.00 per square foot in capex and labor, depending on your environment and the number of carriers you need to support. The biggest downside of DASs is the lack of signal reuse to support the denser capacities required, as more users (and apps) go mobile.
- Small-cell technologies are DAS alternatives for smaller locations that address both the affordability issue and the need to accommodate higher densities of users. They reuse the signal repeatedly throughout buildings for greater, more consistent throughput everywhere.
- Femtocells are the least expensive (about $100 to $200 each). To date, they are limited in the number of users they can support, and have management and roaming limitations when more than one or two are deployed. With more femtocells, interference occurs and seamless voice mobility is not supported.
- An E-RAN is a self-organizing network of small access points. It leverages the existing wired Ethernet network for local backhaul and switching, and the Internet access connection for WAN backhaul. Each node reuses licensed spectrum to create consistent, dense capacity throughout the coverage area. The sweet spot here are buildings with about 50,000 to 500,000 square feet. The cost of the E-RAN alternative averages 25 cents per square-foot – but that’s the capex cost to the mobile operator. You don’t pay for the equipment; just a monthly service fee (opex).
7) Do you trust your mobile operator to partner with you for mobility, and later, cloud-based applications and services? This is probably the biggest question. It has been traditionally difficult for organizations to get operators’ attention for coverage in 50,000 – 500,000 square-foot buildings. Why trust them now? Well, the onus is on the operator to offer you an in-building system and services in a financially sensible manner. The best way to answer this question is to start asking your operator about the availability of such services, the terms, and the capabilities.
Where Does Wi-Fi Fit?
In the meantime, though, you probably have some Wi-Fi in place. Do the internal Wi-Fi and 3G/4G networks dovetail? How do you stitch the disparate networks together into a cohesive mobile network?
If you have a self-organizing system for mobility indoor cellular services, there might be an advantage to asking the operator – once it has proven itself with cellular – to flip on one extra switch and support your Wi-Fi, too. Carriers are increasingly turning to Wi-Fi offload strategies to alleviate congestion on mobile WANs, and are also starting to integrate their cellular and Wi-Fi network cores at the subscription management and data plane levels. Eventually, your operator could take over the worry of seamlessly transferring your users on and off the “best” available (and least-cost) network service as traffic loads ebb and flow.
On the other hand, the business-class Wi-Fi vendors have spent a decade honing their systems with advanced RF planning, management and security tools. Ask your mobile operator whether those capabilities would be available to help you control your Wi-Fi network the way you prefer, or whether you would have to give some of that up.
Consider, for example, migration strategies from 802.11n to 802.11ac. You’re going to want to eventually dump the 2.4GHz band for exclusive use of the 5GHz band to make use of emerging 802.11ac equipment, which can reach speeds of 1Gbps. Will your mobile network operator have the expertise to help you “band-steer” 5GHz-capable clients into the band, or are you better off turning to established Wi-Fi specialists known to have such capabilities?
Finally, what’s your strategy for indoor mobile voice calls? Do you keep folks on the cellular network? Should you build out your Wi-Fi network for voice support? This can be a costly endeavor: You need very dense coverage and full QoS support on what is an unlicensed network, accessed on a contention basis. Merging your mobile WAN and Wi-Fi networks to operate as a unified system, with the best infrastructure, seamlessly accommodating traffic at any given moment based on conditions, is one approach. The other is to optimize your in-building mobile WAN for voice, while keeping Wi-Fi deployments in place for “free”, and/or overflow data transmissions.
Users Weigh In
The user community has many questions about mobility as a service – that is, trusting a mobile network operator to install and manage on-premises cellular equipment to deliver dense mobile WAN signals and capacity. A partner in a cellular optimization company said he would be more open to mobility as a service from mobile operators for in-building coverage, and for Wi-Fi as well, if the terms were reasonable.
“I would trust them to extend their coverage into our building, provided we had…no additional long-term commitment,” he said. “Many times the carriers ask for a three to five year commitment. Two, I can live with. It would be good to have some form of SLA to ensure compliance.”
The partner continued: “Wi-Fi would be much harder to trust them with. For example…what security can we administer, and what will be [the operator’s] responsibility? Are there service, speed and uptime guarantees? It is appealing to have one less thing to take care of, and scary at the same time. [My] first thought is that the benefits outweigh the risks, provided [there are] acceptable terms and answers to our questions.”
There are also misconceptions to clear up.
One enterprise public safety manager said he would like to understand how extending the cellular signal into a building would impact Phase I and Phase II wireless location discovery for 911 calls. “If they are ‘extending’ an existing antenna that is down the street, your callers may show up as ‘down the street’ if they dial 911. Not good,” he said.
Actually, in-building small cells don’t extend an existing macro network “antenna”; they create new spectrum using small, self-contained base stations and antennas traffic-engineered throughout the building. If managed cohesively by operators as one segment of the overall macro network, as in the case of the E-RAN, the extended coverage and capacity should actually bode well for enhancing 911 location discovery, compared to having spotty in-building coverage, or none at all.
Most mobile WAN voice and data calls are initiated indoors. If you need to support mobile WAN users anywhere on your campus, new options are making it possible for carriers to offer you affordable, managed mobility services that require no capex investments on your part. Scalable small cell systems, for reliable indoor coverage and capacity, are available today that were not available just a year ago. Should you trust the mobile operator – who ultimately decides what equipment is allowed to run in its licensed spectrum anyway? The only way to find out is to start asking questions, and test the equipment and the relationship.
– Joanie Wexler, Guest Blogger