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The last-mile conundrum

Using unlicensed spectrum for last-mile connectivity may help enterprises save costs, but it also creates far more business challenges than using licensed spectrum does.

Johannesburg, 14 Jan 2022
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Mauritz Lewies, Chief Technical Officer, Comsol Networks.
Mauritz Lewies, Chief Technical Officer, Comsol Networks.

As fibre connectivity has become standard, so an increasing number of enterprises and industries have begun migrating from on-premise solutions to cloud-based ones. The challenge they face in utilising more web-based services is that now, any kind of connectivity outage can be seriously detrimental to the business.

In today’s digital world, if all your mission-critical applications are housed in the cloud and your backhaul fails, you simply cannot do business. This is why your last mile connectivity is key.

More crucially, says Mauritz Lewies, Chief Technical Officer at Comsol Networks, it makes it very difficult to understand why so many organisations choose to use unlicensed spectrum for their last-mile connectivity.

“Obviously, this is done with cost considerations in mind, since the unlicensed arena is free. Moreover, it works just fine for the average household’s broadband connection. However, there is a massive difference between the quality of service required to stream television at your house and what is needed to effectively deliver mission-critical applications,” he points out.

“Whereas an unlicensed connection tends to be a best effort service, utilising licensed spectrum means your link is designed with the target audience in mind, namely as an enterprise-grade service.”

Although the cost differences can be quite significant, not only in terms of the additional spectrum fee that is applicable for licensed bandwidth, but also in respect of the cost of the equipment itself, it really is worth it. Remember that the cheaper price points offered by unlicensed spectrum are usually met because the provider utilises off-the-shelf chip sets and cheap WiFi components. However, being cheaper means their lifespan is also much shorter, notes Lewies.

“Such components tend to only last for two or three years, whereas there are licensed links that have been working without a problem for a decade or more. This is because enterprise-grade equipment is designed with a much longer lifespan – anywhere from 10 to 30 years – but naturally, this comes with a higher price tag.

“This is not to say that there aren’t some genuinely effective use cases for unlicensed spectrum; merely that it is not really suited to providing the last-mile link for a network on which you run vital business systems.”

One of the biggest differences between the two options, he continues, is the issue of interference. Although the amount of bandwidth promised may be the same, because the unlicensed band is shared with a multitude of other users – from industrial entities to those using indoor WiFi and on to various security service providers – the additional ‘noise’ on the link may impact its quality.

“Remember that as you raise the noise, you negatively impact performance. This is why it is effective to use unlicensed spectrum to provide connectivity in, for example, rural areas where there is little other competition creating such noise,” adds Lewies.

“Moreover, most unlicensed offerings are based on best-effort provision. On the other hand, licensed spectrum providers offer service guarantees that are quantitative – based on the amount of time the service is up or down – and also qualitative, in that if you purchase a 100Mb service, you will have access to that full 100Mb at any time, while packet loss is kept to a minimum, so the service quality remains world class.”

Ultimately, the decision on which service to use for your last mile boils down to understanding what each solution offers and the budget expectations of the IT department, he states. It is about balancing the price point with the quality of the connectivity.

“I am always astonished that an organisation willing to spend tens of thousands of rands on a cloud platform may nonetheless demand that their connectivity costs no more than it does for a home internet service. And this is ultimately the problem: so much focus is placed on obtaining a cost-effective price point that little thought is given to quantifying the challenges that might be created by using the cheaper option.”

“Thus, there is a need to drive a mind-shift here. We want to make them understand that – unlike when your Netflix account suffers some jitters – in the business environment, such downtime always has a cost. If you go down for four hours, or a day, how much is that worth in the context of your business? How long can you truly afford to be without connectivity, where you are unable to trade, talk to clients or invoice customers?”

Lewies notes that these are the issues businesses should consider when deciding between licensed and unlicensed spectrum. He indicates they must not only look at the numbers in terms of the financial cost of such a problem, but must also consider the intangible issues. These include the loss of reputation such downtime might cause, not to mention other issues like health and safety – a good example here being those mining operations that use cloud-based apps to control worker movements in dangerous areas.

“If your business is in a position where it cannot afford major downtime or outages, then you need a service that guarantees your uptime and quality of service. Inevitably, this will cost significantly more, but given modern customers’ willingness to switch to a new provider the moment they have a bad experience with an organisation’s app, a service that ensures your mission-critical systems never fail may well be worth the additional expense,” he concludes.

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