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2018: The Year Where Hype Meets Reality

Posted by Todd Mersch on 10 January 2018

It’s that time of year again — not Christmas, but predictions season. But making predictions is tough. Sometimes they’re way off, like Thomas Edison predicting that no one will use AC electricity, or Bill Gates (possibly apocryphally) stating that 640 Kilobytes will be enough for anyone.

The common failing for predictions is timing. But 2018 will be the year where we start to see change, and some of these predictions will, in fact, come true.

The start of spectrum sharing

Spectrum sharing has been discussed for years, but new developments suggest that 2018 will see spectrum sharing become a reality. The catalyst for this is the availability of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band in the United States.

This spectrum is likely not to be licensed to a single operator, and will not be given full unlicensed spectrum status as with Wi-Fi. Instead, the 3.5GHz band will have three tiers of access. Tier 1 is for incumbent military and government use (and will unsurprisingly have priority). Tier 2 will be licensed, but unlike national licenses, it will be more local and parceled off into smaller bandwidth packages. And Tier 3 will be for unlicensed use, similar to Wi-Fi. The goal behind the CBRS initiative is to empower new wireless players, and to stimulate innovation and growth within the wireless industry and economy in general.

Regulatory bodies in other markets are following the progress of the CBRS band closely, and plan to roll out CBRS-like schemes of their own. If operators use this experience to share spectrum elsewhere, 2018 will be just the start of spectrum sharing.

Standards set the mark – 802.11ax

5G is no doubt going to dominate many predictions in 2018, but it isn’t the only standard deserving of hype. While 802.11ax isn’t quite as snappy a name, it is Wi-Fi’s own “5G” variant, with plenty of LTE-like capabilities built into the standard.

While the 802.11ax standard is four to ten times faster, the other parts of the standard are more interesting. Frequency division multiple access means that each channel consists of hundreds of smaller sub-channels, and up to 30 devices can share a channel without the need to take turns broadcasting and listening. More data will be able to be transmitted per packet, enabling devices to quickly access and leave the channel, further cutting down on congestion.

2018 will see the first routers and devices compatible with 802.11ax, but it won’t be a mainstream technology just yet. Another Wi-Fi standard, however, will become far more popular.

Remaining relevant – WLAN 802.11ac Wave 2

2018 will see rollouts of smart Wi-Fi-enabled Wave 2 802.11ac, presenting an opportunity for the service provider to remain relevant.

There is a strong trend for service providers to want to maintain their place in the home and supply their routers to customers. If this router is replaced by the consumer, the service provider simply becomes a supplier of an internet connection without a foothold—a big risk when companies such as Google and Amazon are already making a strong play to be the companies to manage everything in the home.

So expect a big refresh of WLAN technology in 2018 to 802.11ac Wave 2 technology, in both residential and enterprise deployments. By bundling new routers with software that proactively manages Wi-Fi in either the home or in enterprises, there is also the potential for service providers to leverage this position and upsell additional services.

Collaboration over acquisition

Charter’s purchase of Time Warner Cable and Bright House last year made big headlines, but we expect collaborations like that of Comcast and Charter to be more common.

Many mobile operators already share networks, whether that’s by ‘passive sharing’, where network equipment shares the same space, or sharing of RAN or core networks. Consumers benefit by connecting to a ‘super network’ made up of multiple RANs, while operators benefit as their partner’s network helps with any weaknesses in their own.

This sort of collaboration also makes sense for Wi-Fi networks, particularly for Wi-Fi first mobile services. There is a limit to the number of access points that can be deployed in one area before interference becomes an issue. Sharing agreements means reaching the most congested areas without saturating the airwaves with competing networks in the same location, and helps plug Wi-Fi coverage gaps. Keeping customers on the Wi-Fi network saves money by relying on the mobile fallback network less often, making the whole proposition far more viable.

The pressure of IoT

Almost everyone has a prediction about the number of IoT devices: By 2020, Ericsson says we will have 28 billion, IHS Markit projects 30.7bn, while Gartner has gone for 20.8bn. Whatever the actual number, we’re going to have a lot of IoT devices.

But increased device density as a result of IoT is going to put strain on the networks these devices use. There are new networks designed to meet the specific needs of low-energy IoT devices, such as Sigfox and Zigbee. However, before these see mass adoption, Wi-Fi and mobile networks will need to bear the strain.

In 2018, this strain will become an issue. But while mobile networks are prepared for this, Wi-Fi networks are not. As with the refresh of WLAN equipment, this is an opportunity for service providers to get involved and manage these networks. No customer is going to be happy if they find that their fridge or thermostat is causing their streaming movie to buffer, and service providers can offer to manage these Wi-Fi networks to stop this happening.

A meeting of hype and reality

Unfortunately, 2018 won’t be a year of seismic changes, but rather it will be the start of changes that have been predicted for years finally coming true. With any luck, this means the industry is prepared to tackle these changes head on, and meet the challenges that they will inevitably bring.

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