The battle of citizen networks

Free WiFi

The boom in the demand for mobile connectivity will force us to adopt a heterogeneous combination of technologies, and oblige traditional operators to co-operate and compete with new players

In the next few years, mobile telecommunication networks will undergo an unprecedented transformation, which will be essential for meeting the boom in the data demand in mobile environments, and which will lead to thousands of millions of new devices reaching the market, of the type that connect to the network.

Ericsson and Cisco estimate that in 2018 the world will have as many as 50,000 million interconnected devices, and only about 9,300 million will be conventional mobile telephony clients. A large proportion will be devices associated with offering smart city urban services in health, lighting, transport, parking or rubbish collection, to name just a few examples. However, our current mobile telecommunication networks, particularly the urban ones, will not be able to meet this traffic demand. And this is not because of problems with service coverage, but service capacity.

Small cells versus macro cells. It will be necessary to radically reduce the size of each cell so that each one can attend to a much smaller number of clients and avoid saturation. Therefore, the number of access points (antenna positioning) will have to be multiplied several times, and the size and strength of these antennae will be drastically reduced. The current antennae called macro, which are located on posts or building rooftops and require a specific electricity supply, will become small cells (pico cells or femto cells) that can be installed in bus-stops, street lamps or in the actual façades of buildings or establishments, and also indoors. In urban networks, for every macro cell currently in use –an operator like Vodafone has about 16,000 locations set up in Spain – only 3 or 4 small cells will be necessary, which would take the overall number of cells for one Spanish operator to between 45,000 and 60,000.

The ‘HetNet’. However, parcelling demand into small cells will not provide a solution to meeting the full volume of traffic that will be required. The main bottle neck will be in the frequency spectrum. We need more frequencies to ensure greater capacity. Therefore, as well as starting a fight to death against the television broadcasting industry, looking for more frequencies, the mobile network operators will have to start integrating new technologies. In addition to the macro cells, pico cells and femto cells, technologies from other worlds, like Wi-Fi will be used increasingly more, and they will become the access points to fixed networks. They will complement the downloading capacity of mobile networks, creating so-called heterogeneous networks (HetNet).

Here, obviously, it is essential that the changeover from one network to another (which will be managed by network intelligence according to the saturation levels of each access point), is totally transparent for users. This way not only will data sessions be able to continue without any interruption when passing from one cell network to a Wi-Fi network, but also clients will not have to identify themselves in the Wi-Fi network, as it will connect automatically when there is service coverage, as happens now with household Wi-Fi connections.

‘Offloading’. In fact, Wi-Fi is already fulfilling this role of supporting the capacity of cell networks, particularly for downloading contents, namely videos (offloading). In spite of the dramatic growth in mobile data traffic (the world demand is duplicated each year), the reality is that 80% of the data consumed by smartphones or tablets are accessed indoors, via Wi-Fi access points, connected to fixed ISDN or fibre networks, both in the work place and at home.

New competitors. However the evolution of Wi-Fi technologies is also going to have a further consequence: the battle field is going to be upset, and companies which until now played in other leagues, will enter the mobile data business and challenge traditional mobile operators. This is the case of cable operators, for example. In Spain, groups like Ono (already in Alicante and Santander), Telecable or Euskaltel, have started to develop pilot projects for citizen Wi-Fi networks, and other cable operators like Ziggo in Holland are doing the same. Although at the moment they are limited for the clients with each operator, their high capacity for data downloads and their relative low costs (particularly with respect to cell technology networks), will turn them into an alternative or, at least, a complementary method for network connections and downloads using smartphones or tablets. As always, the problem with these networks is that if they do not have their own frequencies, assigned by Governments, and they use freely available frequencies, it is much harder for them to guarantee a certain level of quality for their clients.

Wi-Fi communities. However, not only traditional or cable operators are breaking into what was until now, the closed world of mobile telephony groups. There are also pure Wi-Fi operators who are becoming major players in providing service coverage for the smart cities of the future. Public-private co-operation has become an essential strategy for this type of initiatives where private groups, like the Spanish holding Gowex, join up with hundreds of municipalities all over the world (Gowex has already built 80 Wi-Fi cities all over the world, and plans to reach 300 major cities by 2017) to build and exploit, with assistance in finance and logistics provided by town halls. Wi-Fi networks that become a unique asset for building both smart city services, and freemium access services (with a combination of paid and free-of-charge services) for citizens. They also provide complementary support networks for conventional operators so that they can download from their devices without saturating the cell networks (offloading). An indication of the increased popularity of these initiatives is the spectacular upward trend of Gowex’s stock market listing last year. This shows how investors have “bought” the business model that groups like Gowen are proposing: this Spanish firm started the year at 2.32 Euro and now each share is worth 9.40 Euro, which grants the group an accumulated capital of 680 million Euro. Also in October this year, Kubi Wireless, one of the main Spanish public Wi-Fi operators (specialising in Wi-Fi coverage in airports, hotels and trade fair arenas), has just been bought by another Spanish holding Eurona Telecom, for 10 million Euro.

Private Wi-Fi turned public. And this trend includes many Wi-Fi operators who are looking for a short-cut: turning the private Wi-Fi in homes and businesses into a public Wi-Fi service. Building public Wi-Fi networks is a relatively long and costly process, with fairly high maintenance expenses, and that is why many municipal networks have failed in these times of lean town hall finances. However, more and more homes and businesses (particularly those on street level) have become private Wi-Fi points, once fixed broadband penetration has become a basic need. And these private Wi-Fi networks are protected against vandalism, they have their own network connection (ISDN, cable or fibre optics) to which they are connected, and they even have their own electricity supply, paid for by the subscriber. In other words, they are the ideal complement for public Wi-Fi. And also their strength, capillarity and rated transport capacity is amazing. According to Jenaro García, the Managing Director of Gowex, the rated strength of the world’s private Wi-Fi is 30 times higher than the strength of all currently available mobile networks. Therefore, if part of the private Wi-Fi flow rate can be made available to all clients, in a transparent way for users (automatically, without them having to identify themselves), the global capillarity and capacity of mobile connectivity will increase several times over. A real challenge for the traffic demand with conventional operators.

‘White Spaces’. However, cable networks are not the only example and neither are Wi-Fi connections the only alternative. In the UK, the regulator Ofcom (equivalent to the Spanish CMT) has introduced a project to make the most of white spaces, a series of frequencies usually among those used to transmit terrestrial TV broadcasts and which, until now, were used as a separation and safeguard to prevent interferences between TV channels. However, the new technologies are allowing them to be used to transmit data in mobile environments. And given the low number of frequencies envisaged for the future, this is something well worth exploring. Normally, in the UK or US they are low frequencies which, therefore, have good propagation quality and achieve wide coverage with services similar to Wi-Fi. However, they are limited in that they must be connected to real time data bases so that they can ascertain which frequencies are free in each area, and therefore avoid generating any interference. And what is more significant is the groups that have signed up enthusiastically to the pilot tests both in the UK and US; as well as conventional operators that are without a mobile network, like BT, the interested parties include some of the world’s leading technology groups like Google, Apple or Microsoft.


Ignacio del Castillo

Head of Telecommunications at the Expansion newspaper

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