Few technologies are as well-recognised as Wi-Fi. Often a byword for the internet itself, ask just about anyone you know from kids to grandparents and there’s a very good chance they’ve heard of Wi-Fi. They might not understand exactly what it is, but the link between Wi-Fi and internet is well-established in the common consciousness.
It’s place in our future network architecture is assured; the sheer number of devices supporting it as their primary (or often only) method of network connectivity means that Wi-Fi is here to stay, no matter what size or type of network is being discussed.
However, there’s a similar-sounding technology which, although it won’t obtain the widespread public brand recognition of Wi-Fi, is set to have a sizeable impact on our networks as we move forward.
That technology is Fi-Wi, or fibre and wireless convergence.
Although fibre is often seen as the ‘end game’ of network connectivity at the physical layer, offering the highest potential speeds, deployment remains a big challenge. In terms of the investment and time required, not to mention the potential obstacles, in many deployments wireless technologies are far more cost-effective.
At the same time, wireless technologies in comparison to fibre often suffer from capacity challenges. It can be very challenging or impossible to provide a user with the speeds they expect from a fibre connection over wireless, owing to a huge range of factors: equipment limitations, radio interference, lack of available spectrum, physical obstructions – the list goes on.
This leaves us with a hybrid architecture. Fibre where you can relatively easily get it, with wireless connections picking up the rest and delivering connections to the network endpoints. In this architecture, fibre serves as a backbone or backhaul connection, the trunk of the tree with branches of wireless connections sprouting off it to reach the end users.
But there’s a mismatch between the properties of those wireless technologies and the fibre network, not just in average data rates but in how they operate, how they need to be managed and how to troubleshoot them.
Fi-Wi is about how wireless and fibre networks can complement each other more effectively, ultimately to deliver a more valuable network that provides for the needs of user and service provider alike.
This extends beyond data rates and network architectures to network management. Integrating both network types in a common network management system, one that is cognisant of the differences and similarities between wireless and fibre networks, will speed the deployment of the network and new services as well as help to reduce troubleshooting time. A big set of wins for any network operator.
One technology enabling Fi-Wi is millimetre-wave (mmWave) wireless networks. With their capability to provide much higher data rates than their 2.4 and 5 GHz cousins, thanks to a comparative abundance of spectrum at their higher frequencies, 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps+ connections are not infeasible over ranges that whilst short for outdoor wireless networks are often within reaching distance of a fibre connection.
This may solve the capacity mismatch between fibre and wireless, but what of the other problems?
Network management tools must evolve to take into account Fi-Wi network architectures in great detail, and be able to plot out a network path (including the important delineation point between fibre and wireless). From there, intelligence has to be applied to each part of the network: the troubleshooting issues common in wireless networks are completely different to those in fibre, and vice versa.
A management system that can detect when and where to apply certain management actions or troubleshooting methods based on a deep understanding of the underlying technologies and network architectures will prove very valuable for network operators deploying hybrid network architectures which, with their flexibility advantages, is sure to be a great number of them as network buildouts progress.
Today, Fi-Wi architectures and operational networks are a work in progress. Yes, many deployments exist where wireless networks connect to a fibre backbone or backhaul; but the next level beyond this, of true fibre and wireless convergence, is yet to come.
When Fi-Wi truly arrives, it’s sure to have a very positive impact on the deployment and operation of important networks the world over.