Wireline vs. Wireless – Is there really a perfect access technology?

A recently published study (“Wireless Broadband Not a Viable Substitute for Wireline Broadband”) by Vantage Point was highlighted recently on the Telecom Blog. Some interesting comments, assumptions, and conclusions were made, which I feel can easily mislead the casual reader – and lead to an overly-sensitive buying process for companies looking for a new broadband service.

The entire study, it seems, highlighted the limitations of Wireless access as an inferior service.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say that wireless would be ever be a complete replacement for wireline. In fact, it almost this non-assertion that seems to be the reason for conducting the research and writing this report – But, allow me to continue regardless. Certainly, governments and policy regulators should encourage industry to grow broadband infrastructure, but the market itself should determine which technologies are used and adapted.

It is really impossible to make categorical blanket statements. Every situation is unique. This report seems fixated on the 4G LTE wireless network, but there is much more to wireless broadband than 4G LTE.

A usable broadband experience with triple-play (Internet, Voice and Video) does not require 100 Mbps. With some intelligent bandwidth management and video codecs, a 25 Mbps DSL circuit can easily provide triple-play services.

Sure, wireless is not perfect….

Available spectrum and licensing is always an major issue.

There are many flavors of wireless being used for wireless broadband already from 802.11 (a, b, g, n, various drafts, and ac), Wimax, proprietary options, various satellite options, 2G/3G/4G/LTE and more. The many flavours cause a lot of marketing noise and “interference” for consumers trying to understand how their needs are met (or aren’t) with each different flavour.

There can be environmental and geographic constraints, but often these challenges are overrated and often unfounded.

The 802.11 based wireless internet service providers (WISPs) are mostly local regional operators and not nationwide, unlike the 4G/LTE networks from AT&T, Verizon and the like. Each WISP is individually controlled using different technologies, pricing and packaging.

Speeds vary widely from under 1 Mbps to over 1 Gbps depending on equipment, configuration, and distance.

On the positive side, wireless can be a great option for low-density and rural areas that don’t have any wireline broadband options available. It can be fast to install with 24-hour turnarounds for a truck roll to install a small unit on the exterior of a business or home.

…. but wireline has its own issues!

In many people’s minds, wireline is much more reliable and very different than wireless. But they share a lot more in common – wireline is still radio frequency (RF) based. The medium for ADSL and DOCSIS Cable is just through copper instead of the air. The same challenges as attenuation, signal loss and interference come into play.

DSL and Cable infrastructure has many single points of failure: Modems themselves, DSLAMs in the nodes, junction boxes, splice points, overhead utility poles, underground conduits being dug up, patch cross connects in Central Offices (COs) failing, data switch failures, power outages and more.

Cable nodes can become over congested, and performance really depends on the operator, backbone capacity and more.

Geography can be challenging as well. As the crow flies, a DSL circuit might only be 1-2 km from a Central Office which we’d think would have great VDSL speeds but, due to cable routing, that distance is often 3-4+ kms and, thus, deliver poor performance to the customer.

Fiber is the latest technology that is being funded by the major carriers in North America, but it too comes with its risks – Fiber cuts can be very costly to both consumers and providers, often taking a very long time (and a lot of money) to repair. Consider these articles, for example: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/arizona-internet-phone-lines-centurylink-fiber-optic-line-cut-vandalism/ and http://www.mercurynews.com/bay-area-news/ci_27407764/antioch-construction-crew-causes-cable-internet-outage-comcast.

Even with the best wireline technology, regulatory bureaucracy can have a very negative impact on pricing and packaging. For example, a wireline connection that delivers 100+ Mbps but comes with “incapacitating” data usage caps such as 500GB per month are virtually useless to the average business owner.

With the growth in adoption of Cloud-based services and applications, traditional wireline may not suffice for some businesses. Wireline broadband is typically delivered with asymmetric upload and download speeds. Generally speaking, upload is about 10% of the download speed (sometimes significantly lower), which impacts cloud file uploads, data backups and more. Wireless connectivity tends to have a more balanced ratio.

Best case speeds can be over 100 Mbps, but speeds at peak times on a network can be much lower depending on the network architecture.

Wireline, too, can be affected by weather. For example, water affecting DSL copper in demark boxes on rainy days.

While Fiber To The Premise (FTTP or FTTH) is the ultimate solution for wireline delivery of braodband, the challenge is with the high build costs. In the vast majority of cities in North America – especially the rural and “near urban” cities and towns – there is no business case for a DSL/Cable operator to rip out their existing plants and rebuild using fiber from end to end. Only in specific cities, villages or countries that have had low wireline broadband implementation would it make sense to do a new build with high market penetration. There are many case studies that show a short term ROI for a large scale implementation, but so far most of the world is still lagging.

The good news: No need to choose!

My advice to business owners who’re regretting whatever decision they made insofar as their Internet delivery is concerned: Stop over analyzing which connection is best. Instead, sharpen your negotiating skills and use multiple connections – Combine them for higher redundancy and performance.

Use the fast lane on the highway, the slow lane, or take a back-road… there are multiple routes to a destination.

Solutions like our Bonded Internet allow for the easy mixing and matching and changing of last-mile providers with no need to schedule outages, change IP addresses, VPNs, or DNS settings. Carrier aggregation solutions also add in additional benefits such as data compression, WAN optimization, packet loss handling, bandwidth speed adaptation, Quality of Service, and more.

Avoid getting married long-term to any service provider – tomorrow there will be somebody new on the block with a better deal. Embrace new last-mile technologies with zero-downtime migration.

Even when there is just a single last-mile carrier, layering on software-defined WAN management services from a Bonded Internet service provider has many advantages. More connections can transparently be added later for additional performance or redundancy, service quality for VoIP calls can be monitored and enforced and more.