There has been a lot of talk about metal wiring slowly fading into the living memory of the broadband dictionary, primarily because metal wiring has physical characteristics that ultimately limit its performance as a transmission medium. Fiber optics are a very viable solution to replace metal wiring, but many have questioned whether or not wireless broadband connections might be a reasonable mass market alternative. There are many factors that cause many to consider the future of wireless broadband to be quite promising, but the question is: how do these factors translate from theory into practice?
By examining these factors and taking a look at the direction in which existing wireless technologies are heading, it might be possible to determine whether wireless broadband could be the next big thing, or if it will always remain as an alternative to wire- and fiber-based broadband. It would also be prudent to explore some of the potential downsides involved with using wireless technologies, as well as the prospects for overcoming or mitigating such downsides.
Low Investment is Good For Everyone
Burying metal wires and/or fiber optic cabling is expensive from the perspective of anyone developing or deploying a network that will service thousands upon thousands of consumers and businesses with broadband. The wires or fiber optic cabling needs to be purchased, permits signed, work crews paid, insurance paid to prevent excessive liability claims, street cabinets purchased, and the IT wizards to make the network function properly. There are secondary concerns such as the HR and accounts payable staff that make these expenses that much more pronounced, but the point is that the act of burying data lines is extremely expensive.
That cost translates into higher service rates, which is understandable since broadband service providers are businesses and not charities. Wireless networks may be able to alleviate much of this cost, depending on their network design.
One of the best examples to compare wireless broadband technologies with would be that of cellular phone networks. Each tower covers a great distance, and indeed these cell phone towers are already providing broadband services. Some of the towers need to have thick bundles of fiber optic cabling and/or metal wiring to take the data from the tower to a hub where it can then be transferred to the Internet, but other towers are simply relay towers that pass data along with nothing more than a supply of power.
Such an arrangement could potentially mean that a few larger wired-towers placed strategically could service many smaller towers that service a much greater area. This argument certainly has merit, but it also exposes some of the flaws in wireless technology that will be covered shortly.
Wireless = Reduced Ping Times?
Almost all forms of broadband technology feature extremely low ping times, but there is an argument that wireless technologies could reduce ping times even further. To understand this argument, one must understand that there are three primary factors that influence ping times: wire distance, signal quality, and network saturation.
Electricity can only travel at the speed of light, which means that the distance it travels along a wire directly affects the ping time. Greater distances equates to higher ping times, and the shortest route from Point A to Point B is a straight line. Unfortunately, real world concerns mean that broadband wiring and/or cabling does not often (if ever) travel in a straight line for long. Obstacles and obstructions as well as the needs of servicing many consumes to create a cost-effective solution necessitate many turns and twists that in turn necessitate data to travel along additional wiring. Wireless systems allow for data to be sent from the modem or device directly to the nearest tower without such considerations, which should reduce ping time in this regard.
The problem with this theory may come signal quality. Electricity traveling over a wire is not as efficient as light traveling over fiber optic cabling, but both can be far more efficient than data transmitting through air. There are many factors to consider, but looking back at the wiring to fiber optic comparison, there is something worth taking note of: control and quality. Wires provide a great amount of control in terms of predicting quality and what would happen if a signal of such a frequency and amplitude were sent, and fiber optic cabling takes this level of predictability to the next level. Meteorologists on the other hand, have a horrible track record of predicting the weather, which just serves to illustrate just how unpredictable of a medium the air may be. When signal frequency increases, the tolerance for deviations in the medium decrease accordingly.
Network saturation could work for or against wireless broadband depending on the level of investment and the technology being used. If there are too many consumers using too few towers, then ping times are likely to increase as data will need to be stored in buffers at different towers and wait in a queue. Even worse, while wires and fiber optics provide very finite limitations, there is really no limit to how many customers can be attempting to use a wireless technology at the same time. In situations with metal wiring or fiber optic cabling, there is a limit imposed by the network itself, but no such limit necessarily takes place with omni-directional wireless broadband services.
Having many consumers with portable devices or even fixed-location devices using wireless broadband also raises a serious question about saturating the frequencies available. A number of technologies are available to solve this problem, but if there is no wireless standard in place that could serve effectively if the entire nation were able to switch to a new technology tomorrow. The problem is that there would be too many users competing for the same transmission frequencies.
Ultimately, low ping times can only be achieved if data gets where it is going without being backed up or garbled due to frequency saturation.
Directed wireless transmissions to and from fixed locations can help overcome the last problem, but only to a degree. In these situations, a physical tower or antennae is attached to a physical property and transmits data to a fixed-location tower. These directed wireless transmissions reduce the appeal of wireless services in general because they rely heavily on line of sight to ensure maximum data transmission quality and signal strength. Directed wireless broadband has been deployed in many markets throughout the country, but it serves primarily as a backup or alternative means to ensure data services in the even of an outage rather than the primary source for data transmissions.
Existing Wireless Broadband Technologies
Wireless technologies are now entering their fourth generation, but existing networks offer a great deal of speed. 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) is capable of delivering speeds in excess of 100 Mbps to mobile devices, as is mobile WiMax. Other 4G standards offer varying levels of performance, but all 4G standards are significantly faster than 3G standards. While it may be a little early to discuss 5G standards, chances are that 5G standards will be nothing short of astounding, and the basis for such a prediction would be found in both the evolution of wireless broadband standards as well as local area network (LAN) WiFi standards.
While ratification of the 802.11n standard took an exceptionally long time, the next generation of wireless networking technologies is due to offer ranges offer far greater ranges than 802.11n and speed that will exceed the gigabit per second barrier. The gigabit per second barrier is currently the de facto wired network standard for LANs, but rumor has it that Intel is nearly ready to start including a trimmed down 10 Gbps network chip with their next-generation chipsets. These chipsets are due out around the end of the year to support Intel’s next generation of CPUs.
Fiber vs. Wireless
The big question is: can wireless supplant fiber or other forms of broadband. The answer is unclear, but there are serious technical obstacles. Engineers live to discover clever ways of circumventing obstacles, so there is a reasonable chance that such obstacles will not prove to be insurmountable barriers, but there may come a time when dealing with a known medium rather than a wide range of ever-changing weather conditions will result in wireless technologies being harder to improve upon in a generation sense. It will be interesting to observe the developments of both fiber optics and wireless broadband standards, but at this point it is very difficult to choose a winner in the long term.