There is no question that the cloud and wireless communications are intricately linked. The cloud allows you to access computer resources and services from anywhere on any device at any time. Wireless communications also allow you to connect to the cloud anywhere, from any device. However, are the demands of cloud users overwhelming the wireless networks?
The adoption of wireless data has grown at a significant rate, with standalone and prepaid mobile data plans generating more than $110B USD in revenue in 2011. Informa Telecoms & Media forecasts that this number will reach $230B USD by 2016. Informa also reports that in the UK only 19% of smart phone data traffic is over the cellular networks. This means that over 80% of wireless data traffic from smart phones is actually going over Wi-Fi networks. If you couple this data with the fact that tablets are generating more traffic than all the smart phones combined, and that most tablets are shipping with Wi-Fi only, you should start to realize that W-Fi networks are significantly more important for rolling out mobile cloud services than 4G cellular networks.
There are two dominant reasons for this. Firstly, people are predominately indoor and stationary when they are using wireless data. Secondly, the cost of 4G cellular is prohibitively high, and the recent capping of monthly usage by cellular operators has left users scared about overage charges.
Why Wi-Fi Outperforms 4G
Back in the 70’s, the first mobile systems put up tall radio towers that covered most of the city. These radio towers would support a handful of users that could talk at the same time. Then Motorola created the concept of frequency reuse. Frequency reuse is when the same frequency channel is used in another cell. This enabled many more users to connect to the network. Today, IT professionals are deploying Wi-Fi systems using the same concept. For example, if you have deployed Wi-Fi in the 2.4 GHz band, you will be reusing channels 1, 6, and 11.
Now let’s say that one base station supports 100 Mb/s. If that base station covers an area with a five mile radius, then that 100 Mb/s has to be shared between users within that five mile radius. If that base station covers an area with a one mile radius, then that 100 Mb/s has to be shared between users within that one mile radius. In other words, if there are a lot of users sending data, it is desirable to move to smaller cells. Indeed what wireless network operators really need to do to support the increasing demand for wireless data is to move to cells the size of Wi-Fi.
Now the 4G folks have defined a small 4G base station that provides the same indoor coverage as a Wi-Fi access point. Unfortunately, a 4G femtocell is significantly more expensive than a Wi-Fi access point. The reason for the cost differential is due to the complexity of the cellular radio specification making the femtocell more expensive and the mass market adoption of Wi-Fi driving down the cost of manufacturing access points.
We can conclude that Wi-Fi is the preferred wireless network for delivering mobile cloud applications today. With the new Wi-Fi products coming out next year that promise gigabit speeds, we can surmise that Wi-Fi will be the preferred network in the foreseeable future.
My recommendation is that you focus your mobile cloud applications to work over Wi-Fi, and plan to use 4G for that relatively small period of time that users are not in Wi-Fi coverage.
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