Wireless connectivity is the new currency in today’s digital age. The proliferation of smart, portable devices has fuelled the rise of digital natives who expect to be always connected everywhere they go, every single day.
Mobile workers, who are projected to make up 42% of the global workforce by 2020, rely more on connectivity than ever before to stay productive beyond their own cubicle. At the same time, connected travellers are increasingly demanding to stay plugged in so they can keep in touch with loved ones back home—and more importantly, access online maps and navigation apps to get around safely in a foreign land.
On a macro level, connectivity continues to transform the way we live. Policymakers are turning to smart city technologies, such as intelligent transportation systems, to overcome the challenges of rapid urbanisation. It’s no surprise why smart city technology investments in Asia-Pacific, home to some of the world’s largest and fastest growing urban areas, are expected to reach US$63.4 billion in seven years’ time. In 2012, Guangdong officials collaborated with local telco operators to send 30 million warning texts about the incoming typhoon Vicente, potentially saving the lives of many.
These point to a conclusion: that connectivity empowers people and nations to do more, and is key to economic development.
When networks buckle under bandwidth stress
However, as more people and devices get connected, mobile networks will start to feel the strain of a spectrum crunch, which is felt more strongly in densely populated locations and during special events.
Take the Longines Hong Kong International Races for instance, the country’s largest race day event. In 2015, it saw a record turnout of 80,000 spectators within the Sha Tin Racecourse. Poor reception and slow data throughput is a common occurrence during such large-scale events as massive phone usage overwhelms mobile networks. In some cases, users are even unable to make calls—possibly preventing those in need from reaching emergency services.
Service providers also face difficulties staying on track when it comes to keeping public transit passengers on subway systems seamlessly connected, especially during rush hours. Weak mobile handover capabilities, coupled with poor interference resistance and bandwidth that spreads too thin, spell slow network speeds and patchy signals, a source of frustration for daily commuters.
So how can service providers ensure no dip in network quality and reliability? Here are three ways they can ease congestion for bandwidth-hungry users and meet their expectations of an uninterrupted wireless experience.
Wireless Access Networks
A wireless access network comprises multiple small cells that are deployed across a location or within a building and act like a Wi-Fi access point, providing excellent quality of service but only over a limited footprint. Easy and relatively inexpensive to deploy, small cells are perfect for service providers and telco operators looking to boost connectivity in small, concentrated spaces.
As such, when it comes to providing multiple band coverage with multiple carriers, small cells fall short since they typically support only one or two bands with single operator, at one time, and the capacity is also limited to small hotspots. During large-scale events and in bigger spaces, it is probably more economical to deploy a distributed antenna system (DAS) than a large network of small cells, as a DAS offers significantly more network capacity than the latter with lesser resources.
Distributed Antenna Systems
Think of a DAS as a cell tower within a building or a large area, without the space requirements and associated cost. Through many small antennas, it provides multiple band coverage and greater cellular capacity than wireless access networks—ideal for congested, high-volume locations. However, DAS deployments can be costly and complex. They require a lot of testing, customisations and installation of special cabling which result in longer time-to-market.
Thankfully, new innovations are set to change this tune. For example, leading wireless service provider Comba Telecom, based in Hong Kong, has developed the most flexible active DAS solution, called ComFlex, which takes away the complexity in deployment to easily support multiple operators and multiple mobile technologies, whether 2G, 3G or LTE. Its compact and modular design further facilitates faster deployment and future upgrades to reduce product lead time and ensure optimum network performance. Comba’s ComFlex solution recently won the 2016 Grand Award at the Hong Kong Awards for Industries, topping all other innovations in the territory.
DAS with Access Networks
There are some use cases whereby service providers tap the combined strengths of wireless access networks and DAS solutions for seamless connectivity. A DAS can help overcome small cell frequency limitations. If additional capacity is needed throughout a building, service providers can easily install small cells at the head-end of a DAS to cope with the growing bandwidth demand instead of overprovisioning.
The caveat is that service providers need to carefully navigate infrastructure and cost constraints, as well as potential issues stemming from the coexistence of wireless systems before deployment to ensure that the high-tech system is a profitable venture.
Whether it is to enable telecommuting or regulate traffic through intelligent traffic lights, connectivity is poised to transform the way we live and work in years to come. Governments throughout Asia are looking to develop smart cities to benefit economic growth and quality of live, which can only be realised with robust connectivity in place. This opens up opportunities for service providers to step up and explore new methods of overcoming congested networks, ensuring a seamless mobile experience for all.
 Strategy Analytics, Global Mobile Workforce Forecast 2015-2020, 2015
 Navigant Research, Smart Cities: Asia Pacific, 2014