The challenge of enterprise wireless connectivity

Enterprise clients typically represent the subscriber group with the highest value for mobile operators. Mobile operators typically have whole departments dealing with large enterprise customers, but so far they have paid limited attention to the most important need of the mobile workforce: excellent mobile coverage in the office. This has been a reason for enterprise clients churning, especially when fierce competition allows competitors to offer better levels of service.

But this is now changing and enterprise specific technologies are evolving as the need to retain these high value customers becomes stronger.

How are offices connected?

Mobile coverage in the enterprise has not traditionally been the domain of mobile operators. First of all, mobile operators only deploy coverage technologies in an office if a client is of significant importance and even then, only when the client signs a multi year contract and can demonstrate that it has major coverage problems. However this is not without good reason: traditional technologies to cover large areas have been very expensive and laborious to install.

Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) have been the technology of choice for mobile operators in advanced markets. A controller is typically installed in a server room and fibre is deployed throughout the office to connect various units that act as cellular access points. A degree of control may be exercised by the enterprise IT department over the DAS installation, but the operator usually maintains, supports and controls the network. The fact that fibre needs to be deployed makes DAS a complex, time consuming, potentially disruptive and expensive exercise.

Not all is lost for DAS

Although an older technology, DAS is still deployed in large buildings due to planning departments being familiar with the intricacies of deployment. There is also another major reason for deploying DAS instead of any other indoor coverage technology: neutral host. Contrary to small cells, DAS allows multiple carriers to coexist in a deployment, but only when a third party facilitates the operation and maintenance. For example, AT&T deploys DAS in large buildings and then hands over control to AT&T Towers which acts as a third party to connect AT&T’s competitor.
Neutral host brings two formidable advantages for DAS: the operator can share the cost while the enterprise client is not restricted to a single operator and can enjoy superior coverage from a plethora of networks.

What can small cells offer?

A next generation of small cells is now being deployed, targeting enterprise buildings in particular. Two vendors stand out, although more are expected to join as the fight for enterprise connectivity escalates:

  • Cisco’s strength in enterprise wifi and its acquisition of Ubiquisys signals that the networking vendor has serious plans for the enterprise area.
  • Spidercloud offers a small cell system (controller and access points) tailored specifically for enterprise locations. There are already examples of enterprise deployments with this system, but operators may not necessarily be willing to publicise them openly.

Infrastructure vendors are also working towards neutral host small cells, although the business model and funding scheme is still unclear. Similar to DAS, a third party will need to manage the network, especially since small cells may be tightly integrated with a specific operator network. This may be an area of opportunity for Small Cells As a Service (SCaaS) providers, namely Virgin Media, CloudBerry, Colt and ClearSky.

Compared to DAS, enterprise small cells can offer a few advantages which may prove to be critical, even compared with wifi.

  • Small cells allow advanced functionality to help ease IT challenges. For example, integration with IP-PBX and Unified Communications may be enabled by enterprise small cells while the IT department can retain control of these services. Contrary to wifi, these value added services do not require an additional client on the mobile device.
  • Small cells create a secure, operator controlled network that does not require additional authentication for employees.
  • Small cells can use existing enterprise Ethernet networks for connecting the access points to the controller. Operators report that the cost to cover an office with small cells is roughly half that of DAS.

There are also hybrid technologies, including Huawei’s LampSite which includes a central node, remote hubs (rHub) placed in each floor and distributed units (pRRU) which communicate with the hub via Ethernet. The communication between the central node and the hub is via a fibre connection.

Wifi with your small cells?

Although wifi and small cells typically cater for different use cases, the popularity of smartphones and tablets is somewhat blurring the line between them. However, both have a part to play for enterprise connectivity.
Wifi is already widely deployed in the enterprise and handled by the IT department, contrary to small cells which are still in an early stage and controlled by both the operator and the IT office. It is here that operators may have an opportunity, especially since wifi and small cells (in higher bands) are similar in nature and require comparable planning.
An enterprise small cell may include wifi functionality which may not be necessarily switched on. A mobile operator may alleviate the risk and cost of maintaining the wifi network for enterprise IT departments and offer both wifi and small cell services (with some degree of control exercised by the IT office).
Several enterprise IT directors claim that they would rather buy a guest wifi service from the operator rather than offer their own, especially when the guest traffic uses operator-controlled transport (operator Carrier Ethernet). Secure wifi access for employees may be a more complex issue to detangle from the IT department, but the business case may be lucrative for new buildings, when an operator can provide both wifi and small cell services as a managed service.

What are the pain points of enterprise IT?

Heads of enterprise IT are faced with several challenges a selection of which is presented below.

  • Bring your own device (BYOD): This increasing trend is causing challenges for enterprise IT, even though it allows employees to be more productive. As this trend increases, enterprise connectivity will require expanded multi-operator coverage in the enterprise, not necessarily single-operator.
  • Security: An increasing concern for IT officers, especially as more devices and services rely on the network to operate. Managed enterprise connectivity (SLA-bound) may alleviate some concerns for the enterprise, especially when the operator provides the transport network as well.

It’s a complex world

Enterprise connectivity is likely to remain a fragmented and complex environment where one size will not fit all. DAS, small cells, carrier wifi and repeaters are all expected to play a major part in providing enterprise services, especially as operators compete to retain high value clients.
Mobile operators are very well placed to take advantage of these needs and become a wireless connectivity provider for the enterprise, whether this is wifi or cellular. Advances in technology certainly allow them to do so in a cost effective manner while offering new value added services.

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