Cellular and Wi-Fi Work Together to Provide Robust In-building Mobile Broadband


We live and work in the digital age. The ability to access information when we want it and how we want it is prevalent across the workplace as well as in our personal lives. Smartphones, tablets and laptops allow us to be mobile, no longer tied to a cord connected to an outlet. But all of that mobility relies on a strong infrastructure mix of wireless equipment, fiber and coaxial cable.

Distinctions between Cellular and Wi-Fi Connectivity

Cellular and Wi-Fi are the two main ways of accessing mobile broadband but each have distinctions. Wi-Fi connectivity uses unlicensed spectrum at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies. These two frequency bands are shared spectrum, meaning no one owns it. In a business environment, the IT department manages the Wi-Fi network and controls which devices can access the network, and build parameters in the network. For example, some IT administrators may block access to certain websites, or different types of employees may have different levels of access to information within the network.

In contrast, cellular carriers lease licensed spectrum from the federal government and only allow their customers to access the network. Businesses today either supply work-related cellular devices to their employees or allow people to bring their own devices into the workplace and pay a stipend to the employee. Employees want access to both Wi-Fi and cellular networks when they are at work. If too many devices are trying to access the Wi-Fi network, it can get bogged down, so some people will turn off the Wi-Fi connection and use cellular frequencies to gain connectivity.

To date, Wi-Fi connections have mostly been data-centric. Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) is offered by some wireless carriers. However, Voice over Wi-Fi connectivity typically does not have the same quality of service standards of commercial cellular networks. While small venues with limited numbers of employees may be able to get by with a Wi-Fi-only solution, mid-sized and larger venues likely will need a combination of cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity to offer their customers robust mobile broadband connectivity. Increasingly, enterprises that serve customers, like shopping malls, healthcare facilities and others are providing customer-facing Wi-Fi connectivity as well as an amenity for their customers.

In-Building Cellular Solutions

Some building materials such as concrete, low-emission glass and aluminum, make it difficult for the RF cellular signal to get inside a building. Further, too many employees on either network simultaneously can slow the networks down. In those cases, adding an in-building solution can augment the macrocellular network.

In-building solutions are generally categorized in the following:

Distributed Antenna Systems: A DAS distributes RF signals from a central point to antennas located throughout the facility to provide ubiquitous coverage and capacity. They are primarily used in large buildings, stadiums, public spaces, airports and outdoor environments. DAS networks can accommodate a large number of people and a variety of frequency bands and technologies. They can be designed to house all wireless carriers, which is often referred to as a neutral-host design. A DAS also can scale so new carriers or frequencies can be added to the system after it has been deployed.

Repeaters and Bi-Directional Amplifiers (BDAs) boost the cellular signal by rebroadcasting it inside the building from an existing cell site. They are coverage-only solutions. Operators must approve BDA deployments as they can interfere with the macrocellular network. Depending on the services in the area, multiple BDAs might be needed to cover the area adequately.

Small Cells are an umbrella term given to microcells, metrocells, picocells and Enterprise Radio Access Networks (E-RAN). These are operator-controlled, low-powered radio access nodes, including those that operate in licensed spectrum and unlicensed carrier-grade Wi-Fi spectrum.

Traditional small cells are typically low-power radio access points designed to increase coverage and capacity within a short range and can handle a limited number of users; they generally have a range from 10 meters to several hundred meters. Some solutions can scale to cover very large venues and thousands of data sessions. Small cells are generally indoor, premise-based deployments that go beyond a home-office environment.

Tracy FordTracy Ford is Executive Director of Member Services at the Wireless Infrastructure Association and she oversees the HetNet Forum and WIA’s Innovation & Technology Council. The HetNet is a wireless ecosystem, comprised of a variety of mobile and wireless technologies and infrastructure, interoperable with the macro-cellular network providing harmonious voice and data communications.

Ford has spent more than two decades covering the rapidly changing wireless industry. She started her technology journalism career at RCR Wireless News, holding the positions of associate publisher and executive editor. Ford holds a B.S. degree in Mass Communications with an emphasis on public relations from Minnesota State University-Moorhead.

Find out more about the Wireless Infrastructure Association and the HetNet Forum at www.hetnetforum.com and www.wia.org.

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