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Wired or Wireless: Will the Distinction Matter?

December 12, 2012 - 2 Comments

Howard Baldwin - Photograph

By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

How symbiotic is the relationship between wired and wireless technologies? Simple answer: very. Increasingly, the perceived gap between traditional cellular (3G, 4G), Wi-Fi, and wired technologies is narrowing.

There’s no question that the gap between wireless technologies is narrowing. Tiago Rodrigues, project director for the Wireless Business Alliance (WBA), sees venues such as sports stadiums, shopping malls, and even universities combining cellular and Wi-Fi coverage.

“There is a trend for different technologies to operate as one, depending on specific needs of the user. Operators will optimize networks depending on consumption of services, and devices must be able to identify different technologies, so that it will adapt to the available network seamlessly and automatically, without manual input.”

“If someone downloads a YouTube video in a shopping mall, then the operator would choose to put that on a Wi-Fi network. If another customer is sending e-mail, that would go on a 3G network. It’s a way to optimize and balance traffic, so operators will have a better way of managing and delivering service to customers.”

Growth in Enterprise Wi-Fi

Similarly, in the bring-your-own device (BYOD) world where enterprises are still paying or subsidizing cellular bills, they want to deploy similar methods to keep consumption of cellular minutes down. It’s not just because bandwidth issues have begun to make unlimited usage harder to get; it’s also a question of productivity.

If a smartphone isn’t getting coverage, communication suffers. That’s why we’re seeing so much in the way of Wi-Fi offload solutions – the method of moving cellular data to internal Wi-Fi hotspots in order to maintain coverage.

As Rodrigues notes, operators are focusing considerable efforts in these areas. Nick Marshall, principal analyst for networks at ABI Research, says, “We’re seeing double-digit growth in mobile traffic – it’ll be eighteen times what it is today in five years. The traffic growth is so large there is a place for all flavors of techniques to satisfy demand for capacity, whether it’s carrier Wi-Fi, enterprise Wi-Fi, or licensed small cells.”

Marshall adds that carriers, facing flat to slow revenue growth, have to find low-cost ways to satisfy the demand. “It depends on the network and the operator and the circumstances for what technique you choose, and some may choose all of them.”

Networks Becoming Heterogeneous

But the gap between wireless and wired is also narrowing.

Marshall points to AT&T’s November 2012 announcement of its Project Velocity IP as evidence. The carrier is investing $14 billion – split almost evenly between wired and wireless infrastructure – and expects, according to its release, to give “99 percent of customer locations in wireline service area … high-speed IP Internet access via IP wireline and/or 4G LTE.”

Shrikant Shenwai, CEO of the WBA, notes that even with the word wireless in its name, his group counts several fixed broadband carriers and cable companies in its membership. “They are all focusing on integrating Wi-Fi into their [offerings]. Even if you’re offering fixed or cable services, there’s a critical need to incorporate Wi-Fi.” Rodrigues adds that a wired infrastructure is crucial, pointing to one WBA members’ efforts to deploy fiber as a backhaul for its Wi-Fi and mobile services.

Given bandwidth issues, will this increasing symbiosis eventually diminish our reliance on wireless spectrum? Marshall believes that even though demand for wireless data seems to be insatiable, cellular capacity will continue to evolve.

He agrees with Rodrigues that operators will offload mobile traffic to wired infrastructure, and points to bumps in backhaul investment to support that contention. “Operators won’t stand still. They’ll continue to upgrade because their subscribers won’t stand for quality-of-service issues.”

The upshot then, according to Rodrigues: “Networks in the future will be completely heterogeneous and combine technologies in an optimized way. Operators will combine these technologies in an optimized way to deliver the best experience for their customers.”

As long as the broadband subscriber receives the quality of service that they require, when and where it’s most needed, the distinction between wired and wireless will eventually matter less than it does today.

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  1. There are several conflicting models merging under this model/vision: two-way voice, store and forward data and video. The latter is almost exclusively 1-way. But what happens when it is 2-way 4k video conferencing anywhere, anytime? The technology (and low cost) is there to do it today, ubiquitously. What's holding us back is the vertical integration of carriers. They cannot scale all layers in the stack across their limited market segments. The only reason the flaw isn't more widely revealed is due to monopoly pricing and revenue streams. The future will be horizontally scaled intranets in the lower, middle and upper layers. Importantly, settlement systems, in addition to controls and security, will be important in the middle layers. Without balanced settlements we can't get new service introduction or centralized procurement for ubiquitous and universal service. The bill and keep tradition of the internet players won't work. And it's just a way for incumbents to keep new entrants out. That's the irony and paradox of the current ITU debate. The US position is flawed in that it limits new service introduction, while the latter approach is better even though they are trying to sustain monopolies. One is fighting the wrong battle and the other is fighting yesterday's war. Saying there is little difference between wired and wireless is meaningless. Thinking about and discussing the business model to get there is a better route.

    • @Michael, thank you -- once again -- for taking the time to share your point of view.