Christmas is the time for retailers to make the most of wireless

King-edward-street-leedsWe recently launched a report outlining the opportunities for retail businesses that take advantage of wireless technology to support their business — and as the first Christmas products are already beginning to hit the shelves, now is the time to react ahead of the busiest period of the year.

For many businesses, Christmas is a make or break time, particularly as the high street struggles to compete with the significant challenge posed by the online sector.

In our report we identified that consumers expect to receive similar levels of personalisation as they get online while visiting traditional high street shops. Consumers also want the whole process to be as simple and enjoyable as possible. But, faced with a choice between battling the crowds in shopping centres and browsing from a tablet at home, many are understandably opting for the latter.

Enhancing the instore experience is therefore crucial to encouraging customers to leave their homes, and it’s in this area that wireless can make a massive difference – it’s not just encouraging people in to stores by providing basic phone signal.

At Christmas wireless can provide the connectivity for shop floor staff to be able to display personalised information on shoppers’ preferences on their tablets — with their consent, of course. Rather than having to spend time asking many basic questions, this will allow staff to quickly provide recommendations based on previous purchases — and will more likely result in a sale.

Wireless can also help mitigate one of the negative aspects of the retail customer experience at Christmas, the dreaded queues, something that will only become more important as customers migrate to contactless cards or applications such as Apple Pay. A number of retailers and restaurants are now even offering the option for payment via a dedicated app, removing the need for queuing and staff from the equation completely.

This is just as relevant for the grocery sector as well as retail. At a recent conference, Joanne Denney-Finch, CEO of IGD, predicted a retail world that entails “automated replenishment, smart queuing systems and enhanced click and collect services”, enhancing the store experience by “allowing consumers to engage with brands and avoid perceived mundane shopping processes.”

All of these are services that require wireless connectivity to function efficiently. However, there’s a danger that the focus is currently on services and applications and the communications infrastructure to support these has been forgotten.

Wireless isn’t an easy challenge to address — from provision across a complex building to the business case for the investment. For more information on the opportunities enabled by wireless and the business case to support them, download our guide here.

Technology and retail: how wireless is key to bricks-and-mortar shopping

3174937547_838753c182_oThe media love a good “the high street is dying — online shopping is the future” story. Compelling headlines that talk about the death of one industry in favour of another make for an entertaining read, and who wants the truth to stand in the way of a good headline?

The reality is that bricks-and-mortar shops are not disappearing. On the contrary, retailers and property owners are taking actions to encourage people to use the “real” experience of shopping to complement the online experience. However, the retail stores of today are significantly different to those in the past in how they attract and retain customers. Although each shop will have its own unique strategy for attraction and retention, the key trend of 2015 points to improving the customer experience and we at Real Wireless see technology playing a crucial role in achieving this.

For stores with big budgets, the technology can often be headline grabbing and quirky, and can potentially offer consumers experiences they don’t typically see every day. Harrods, for example, installed augmented reality window displays for its Tissot watch range.

But, of course, most stores are unlikely to want to invest in technology like that, certainly not at the early stage of any technology initiative. However, the premise of using tech to improve the customer experience remains important to every store. So, most retailers are focusing on how to capitalise on a piece of technology that almost every consumer has in their pocket nowadays — the smartphone — in a way that enhances the experience and ultimately improves business performance.

As consumers become more accustomed to using smartphone technology, they increasingly expect retailers to replace loyalty cards with a digital app, provide personalised discounts based on the consumer’s own preferences, interact with consumers through social media, accept contactless payment, let consumers themselves scan items to speed up the checkout process, and roll out countless other enhancements. At the same time the customer may want to do online comparisons and get an opinion from their friends through social media before making the purchase, so the customers need to be able to get online.

The key to capitalising on smartphones lies in wireless connectivity — not just Wi-Fi, but 3G and 4G too. If a retailer fails to meet today’s consumer’s connectivity needs, they risk losing out on sales. But by addressing those needs, retailers can enhance the customer experience, driving brand loyalty and, ultimately, improving sales.

To help retailers get the most out of good connectivity, Real Wireless has published a report detailing the importance of wireless for the retail industry, the business case for generating a return on technology investment, and how to overcome the challenges that any rollout will face.

The report, entitled Wireless and the omni-channel time bomb, is available free of charge from today.

A Manifesto for better DAS

DAS_Close_SMateoNote: This article, by Real Wireless’s Managing Consultant Oliver Bosshard, was originally published in RCR Wireless

The traffic demands users are placing upon networks continues to accelerate rapidly. In order to cope with this trend, debates have focused on network offload; the benefits, options available and their respective merits.

Despite plenty of discussion, we’re still no closer to solving this problem. 80% of all data traffic is generated indoors, from office employees, visitors, customers and the like. Yet remarkably few buildings feature indoor mobile infrastructure installations; typically only the newest and largest (e.g. airports, stadia, shopping malls), ignoring the vast majority of people. Clearly there is a huge opportunity here and a number of technologies are jostling to be the solution – including Small Cells, Radio Remote Heads, Wi-Fi and optical or passive Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), each with their own merits, weaknesses and use cases. Ideally we would have one standardized solution with standardized interfaces for all (large to small) indoor coverage solutions.

The oldest solution for indoor coverage is DAS. Originally an analogue, single-operator, single-technology solution, it has evolved to encompass digital multi-operator, multi-technology solutions – as well as supporting MIMO (Multiple Input – Multiple Output).

Despite these upgrades there remain a number of significant limitations to the technology – and a lot of room for improvement. Worse still, it now faces stiff competition from rival technologies, in particular from small cells. A number of analyses show that these might be more cost-effective than DASinsome cases and some companies and pundits have been making announcements about the end of DAS. With the massive reduction of base station (BS) pricing, operators might even opt for more dispersed Base Stations (BS) with a passive DAS, instead of an active DAS.

But DAS continues to be used widely, and in fact the number of deployments continues to grow. No surprise: it has a lot of compelling attractions, especially for multi-technology and multi-operator support (they can share one infrastructure, as opposed to one small cell for each). Indeed, it was striking how at Mobile World Congress 2014 the explosion of activity and news came from DAS vendors, demonstrating a number of new products and innovative ideas.

Certainly, all is not lost for DAS. If it could continue to evolve into a smart, digital solution – offering flexible sectorisation, intelligent/dynamic capacity steering, digitalization, package switching at a more competitive price – it could become the ideal solution.

Here is my manifesto for a better DAS.

(Note: In the interests of complete fairness, several companies are currently working on – or planning – some of these ideas. However, I’m not yet aware of anyone that has announced they intend to combine them all, and I see this as the real opportunity here.)

Better RRUs through equipment adjustments

Compared to conventional radio remote heads, the radios used in the Radio Remote Units (RRU) of DAS are technology-agnostic. Typically RRUs will feature modular support for all 5 bands and technologies, and are remarkably straightforward in their composition: one power supply, one Fibre or Cat6/7 connection, one RF output to an antenna or passive DAS.

Ideally, the RRUs should evolve in to full 2×2 MIMO remote units. To achieve this, the equipment required needs to become slightly more complex, with 2 RRUs in tandem fed by two Fibres or Cat7 cables with two RF outputs to a MIMO antenna or DAS. If the total spectrum of both streams together is less than 270 MHz, only one Fibre / Cat 7 connection may be used.

Increase signal capacity and noise cancellation via digital transmission

At present, the fiber connections between Master Units (MUs) and Radio Remote Units (RRUs) typically support a sampled analogue RF signal input of up to 10 Gbps in capacity.

With 270 MHz of cellular spectrum available across all 2G to 4G bands and technologies, and 30 MHz of sampled spectrum typically requiring 1 Gbps of digital capacity, this means 9 of the 10 Gbps available is required for cellular; leaving only 1Gbps spare for other technologies such as Wi-Fi.

But sampling of an analogue RF signal is not the most efficient usage of a transport medium. Imagine if the digital bit stream from the CPRI interface could be used. The CPRI data stream does not need sampling and therefore can be transmitted as it is, using the transport medium in an efficient way. As a result, conventional fibre connections could be replaced with Cat7 cabling, in conjunction with standard SFPs on the MUs and RRUs.

The other benefit of digital transmission is that the digital signal can be transported, amplified and distributed without the typical signal losses and noise creation. This would mean that RRUs could be situated far away from the MU and daisy chained as required.

Finally, by digitizing the transmission, the current issues DAS faces with signal loss over distance are rendered irrelevant, as the signal can be amplified without the risk of increased noise. Thisalsostartstoleadtowardsahybrid between DASandthenewer CRAN architectures beingcontemplatedforthewide-areanetwork.

Reduce costs, simplify and increase efficiency by connecting to CPRI

At present, DAS uses standard RF interfaces for BS – MU connections. This results in OEMs needing to purchase and produce additional BS hardware for compatibility. This increases the complexity of the solution, whilst adding additional costs for manufacturing, stocking and shipping.

Using CPRI – oranotherevolvedoptimizedinteroperabledigitalinterface- would do away with the need to include the radio in the BS, reducing hardware requirements, power consumption and the use of external directional couplers and termination loads between the BS and the MU. The need for less up-conversion and final amplification in the base stations would reduce hardware costs, power, UPS and air-conditioning significantly and avoid RF noise creation.

Finally, by digitizing the transmission, the current issues DAS faces with signal loss over distance are rendered irrelevant, as the signal can be amplified without the risk of increased noise. This would mean that RRUs could be far away from the MU and daisy chained as required.

But at the same time, thanks to our newly supported CPRI connectivity, the signal conversion at the RRU end becomes simpler and cheaper, thanks to a direct digital / RF conversion.

Take full advantage of routing and switching capabilities

Another benefit of CPRI interface is that the data is presented as a digital data stream. As a result, the data stream could be switched and routed by proprietary switches supplied by the DAS manufacturers, using either Cat 7 (up to 100m) or Fibre networks for longer MU – RU distances (up to 40 km is possible).

Doing so would not only allow full flexibility in traffic allocation to end points, shaping traffic to meet demand for capacity, but also smarter switching of unused or underused repeaters. By manually or dynamically switching off unused repeaters, more effective management of uplink and downlink noise pollution and power consumption is enabled.

Unfortunately CPRI implementation differs from OEM to OEM: it is one of those “not quite standardized standards”. We need to achieve open interfaces and (perhaps) cross-vendor interoperability if we are to get the best possible use out of DAS and a more open market. In the meantime, DAS manufacturers can create their own CPRI at the master unit output, in order to take advantage of the benefits digital transmission offers.

Another issue is that CPRI, while digital, is not compatible with Ethernet or current installed networks.

That too is changing, however. While there are issues with carrying these signals for their transportation over standard TCP/IP switching and routing networks these can be addressed. By standardising the CPRI interface across OEMs and encapsulating the cellular data packets in standard IP packets, traffic could be switched and routed via conventional routers instead of proprietary units supplied by DAS manufacturers – of course, this is reliant upon transmission requirements being met, such as synchronization and a jitter free constant serial data streams. However, several vendors are now demonstrating products that can, indeed, carry digitized RF over standard Ethernet. 

By adopting these proposed changes, we would see massive capital and operational savings in the use of DAS systems. Standard infrastructure would be able to be used for switching and routing, whilst larger areas would be able to be covered by a DAS system.

To end with two thoughts about the implications for business models and the industry.

It is notable that these changes to DAS, coming from an in-building context are very similar to, and probably converge with, the activities around virtualization and Cloud RAN that are happening elsewhere in the network. Again, the move to transporting digital radio signals, to support multiple services in a flexible way are similar. We may see some intriguing overlaps between DAS companies and Cloud RAN suppliers.

Finally, and worth noting, the term “neutral host” may well receive a completely new meaning and present a new opportunity for groups such as MSOs. Interestingly, there has always been a difference in neutral host between Europe & USA, and that difference could change in various ways. Beyond cost and efficiency savings, the proposed changes could actually catalyse new business models that could change the industries structure.

Will cognitive radio, dynamic spectrum access come of age in 5G?

Around 10 years ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Next Generation Communications program constructed a prototype cognitive radio system, which utilized dynamic spectrum access for its communications. By identifying unused sections of spectrum in the area it was operating, it was hoped up to 10-times more spectrum would be available for transmissions. This highlighted a growing interest in the defense community in dynamic spectrum access techniques which had been developed with the challenges of battle-space spectrum in mind, but also apparently had applicability in commercial environments in terms of making more efficient use of valuable spectrum resources and potentially leading the way to spectrum trading. The XG program was one of the largest cognitive radio projects at the time but interest in Cognitive radio was by no means limited to the U.S.

Martin Cave’s audit of public sector bands in 2005, which highlighted just how much more efficiently U.K. defense spectrum could be utilized, provoked interest in the topic in the U.K. This was produced alongside Ofcom’s Spectrum Framework Review, which set out ambitious targets for a general move from the traditional “command and control” approach to spectrum licensing to a more dynamic approach based on “market mechanisms” with the overall ambition of realizing better value from spectrum for the U.K.

With the switchover to digital television and release of TV white space, a debate was ignited over whether DSA could be applied to these civilian bands too. The obvious example of this has been the activity around TV white space, although the Federal Communications Commission discussion on 3.5 GHz is also significant.

However, the digital TV switchover was six years ago and the commercial roll out of white space devices is still fairly limited due to the complications of deploying these devices in practice. Concerns over the so-called “hidden node” issue (interference provoked by the failure of one device to detect the presence of all other devices) and how devices with different spectral views would liaise with each other have meant that the regulation of these white space devices has taken some time to agree.

In attempting to overcome these limitations, regulators gradually shied away from a pure spectrum sensing approach, towards the introduction of beacon signals to identify usage, before settling on the use of a centralized database of white spaces in each location that is used in addition to spectrum sensing.

But even then, the practical use of TV white spaces has continued to be fairly limited. Vendors and operators have struggled to find an application that suits the availability of white spaces, as well as handling the lack of guaranteed spectrum.

This same philosophy is being proposed for 3.5 GHz in the U.S., where some locations have other users (e.g. marine radar), but the combination of database and sensing could allow this band to be used. This is especially important as 3.5 GHz is one of the few LTE bands that is supported globally, so there is a clear commercial imperative.

Enter 5G

At the recent 5G Huddle, rethinking how existing technologies make use of spectrum was a key topic of discussion, with spectrum sharing a major part of this.

There are some strong arguments for why this would be sensible:

  • We’re starting to reach the limits of what we can achieve through higher order modulation schemes, with any gains insufficient to keep pace with demand.
  • We may still be making some gains with regards to multiple-input, multiple-output and CoMP, but again, not at the same rate that demand is increasing.
  • Small cells, which are increasing in usage, and network densification, levels of which are also increasing, both lend themselves well to spectrum sharing.
  • –he last variable available to us in our attempts to increase capacity is spectrum, and (at least in theory), DSA maximizes availability and efficiency of spectrum across all operators

On that last point, this is of course only if it is deployed correctly, with polite protocols for communications.

However introducing dynamic spectrum sharing to “5G” would surely result in 5G just suffering from the same technical issues that cognitive radio has encountered before.

After all, one of the key differentiators of cellular over many other wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi, is the guaranteed quality of service. Indeed, we have previously examined how exclusively licensed spectrum loses value as the sharing arrangements increase uncertainty for operators.

Wouldn’t 5G lose this edge if spectrum access became dynamic and without guarantees?

At present, you would be correct, but it is unlikely anyone would be satisfied introducing such a glaring problem into 5G. Rather the key difference between earlier cognitive radios and 5G is that, as demonstrated with the discussions at the 5G huddle, major commercial vendors and operators are putting significant research time and investment behind the technology.

Perhaps this time around, with the full weight of the industry behind it, and with an appropriate understanding of what operators need from spectrum sharing conditions to offer high-quality services, cognitive radio and DSA can really come of age.

This blog post originally appeared as part of RCR Wireless’s Analyst Angle, where the industry’s leading analysts discuss the hot topics in the wireless industry.