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Charter Communications has a solution for the increasing number of wireless bands that devices are using—put all the relevant radios in a single box. The operator has announced plans to embed small cells in its new home gateways, creating an all-in-one solution for connected devices in the home: “It’s not just WiFi. We’ll put in LTE small cells in that same device. We’ll put IoT radios in that same device. Eventually…we’ll put millimeter wave small cells in that same device,” said SVP of wireless technology, Craig Cowden.
A big driver for this is Charter’s move into mobile. Keen to be more than an MVNO relying solely on operators’ networks, the operator wants to improve its mobile infrastructure by building a network that uses the new lightly-regulated CBRS band. As well as acting as a home gateway, these small cells will form part of this network.
In-home small cells are not new but previously they were mainly used by customers who found that they had limited network service at home, and the small cell fills in that part of the network using the customer’s internet connection.
This, plus other moves by vendors and operators, led to Light Reading declaring 2018 “the year of cable small cells”. This seems a good bet—with cable providers moving into mobile and using their customer base to help provide the infrastructure, small cells will be an effective way to reduce the need to build out tower sites or pay money to rivals to use their infrastructure.
Charter’s decision to add extra radios to this gateway makes sense, future-proofing it against the huge wave of IoT devices analysts have predicted. While the IoT and millimeter wave radios will likely need to be supported by range boosters across the home, an otherwise single device for many different radio technologies could have benefits beyond mere convenience.
There is, for example, the opportunity to enable intelligent traffic allocation. Traffic with rigid quality of experience requirements can be placed on the cellular network, while data with high bandwidth requirements can be diverted to Wi-Fi. Devices that have multiple radios, such as mobile devices, can use the network that is best suited for the current task.
Millimeter wave and IoT radios in combination with Wi-Fi, will be able to provide a combination of “in-room” and “in-home” coverage. The limited range of millimeter and some IoT radios means excellent “in-room” coverage but this falls off quickly outside of this small area. This means focused local coverage is possible, coupled with the wider coverage and mobility support provided by Wi-Fi—a comprehensive residential solution that covers multiple bases.
Ultimately, the answer to whether multiple wireless technologies in a single gateway is a good idea is like so many answers: it depends. Simply putting all of the technology in a single box isn’t enough to offer a good experience. A cohesive, unified management solution is vital to make sure that the technologies are working together to provide the best overall experience to the customer—eliminating interference, directing traffic to the most appropriate technology, and optimizing the variety of systems.
A single gateway will be good for customers as they will have everything they need for every device in a single package, and good for the cable providers as they can offer an all-in-one service that will maintain customer loyalty. But without management and coordination these technologies are unlikely to provide the quality of experience customers now demand.