The demand for ubiquitous web access and a scarcity of bandwidth on wireless networks are driving the technology world to try to figure out how to build the equivalent of a bandwidth cloud composed of a variety of available networks, from cellular to Wi-Fi and WiMAX. Various speakers at a Portable Computer and Communications Association meeting held today in San Mateo, Calif., described how this problem is being addressed by the IEEE and various services and software companies.
Vivek Gupta, a wireless architect at Intel, talked about emerging standards at the IEEE that deal with creating building blocks to reconfigure spectrum based on the type of device or application that is trying to access the network. One of these standards, called 1900.4, was published in February of this year. Another standard, called 802.21, which deals with handovers from network to network, also was published this year. The 802.21 standard may have the most utility, as it would likely connect Wi-Fi and WiMAX networks, and enable seamless handovers from one network to another. The seamless handover is important, because it means people won’t experience an interruption in service as they move from network to network. This would be especially important during a VoIP call or while watching streaming video. Gupta says we might see that happening within the next 12 to 18 months.
The hope is that 802.21 would also work with cellular standards proposed by the 3GPP, which controls the fourth-generation wireless LTE standard. However, carrier adoption of an IEEE standard is unlikely since they like to develop their own, said Gupta. He said the idea of creating a seamless handoff between networks using licensed and unlicensed spectrum is “a difficult proposition.”
However, the demand for constant connectivity and the expense of providing mobile access are both rising. An executive from iPass, which provides Wi-Fi and 3G data access globally to corporate customers, noted at the meeting that software or a method for determining which employees in an enterprise need to access the most expensive networks (such as Wi-Fi on a plane) will help bring down costs. Even being able to determine if a device would be better off moving onto a Wi-Fi network rather than a 3G network for reasons of cost, reliability or speed becomes more important. Brand Communications makes a software client to run on a device that bands several networks together to boost bandwidth and provide redundancy for mobile connectivity to create a true broadband cloud, rather than seamless access from one network to another.
Essentially, folks here are talking about a bandwidth cloud, but making that a reality will require a review of business models as well as hammering out technical standards.