Introduction to Broadband and Convergence
What is Broadband Communications?
Broadband is widely described as the great game-changer for mission-critical communications.
So what is ‘broadband’? Not a specific technology. Rather, ‘broadband’ loosely refers to high speed, high-capacity wideband data transmission that can transport multiple signals simultaneously. It can be implemented in a variety of technologies. Think of a very wide multi-lane highway simultaneously transporting different types and sizes of data messages. Because the highway has been made very broad, there is room for all the data, regardless of size or type, to arrive quickly at their intended destination. This is wideband communications. In contrast, narrowband communications (such as Land Mobile Radio (LMR) supports) has been designed as the data transport equivalent of a two-lane road that can only guarantee that small data messages will arrive on time.
Another way of characterizing broadband is to say that it covers any technology that can support fast Internet access. Examples we can point to are Ethernet, WiFi, and 4G cellular.
Let’s look at Ethernet first
You will be familiar with Ethernet as the standard technology for wiring together computers and networking devices to create an office or home network (LAN). If you have ever plugged a cable from your computer to a modem or router/switch, then you have made use of an Ethernet connection. An Ethernet cable looks like a phone cable, but fatter with eight wires versus phone’s four. The Ethernet connection allows you to send or receive data across the physical wire to or from other connected devices. These devices may be part of your LAN or they may be on the Internet. Ethernet cables come in different lengths and types (called ‘categories’) with names like CAT5, CAT5E, CAT6 etc.. The various categories of Ethernet cable differ in the performance they offer and the maximum length supported. Most types of cable (such as CAT5) can deliver data at speeds up to 100 megabits per second (Mbps) over 328 feet (100 meters) . Others (CAT5E, CAT6 and above) can go even higher and will support gigabit speeds (1-100 Gbps), but may be limited to shorter cable lengths.
An Ethernet connection is perfect for devices such as desktop or laptop computers or routers that don’t move around during use. It can carry high-speed high-capacity data streams such as Internet traffic. Being a wired technology, it offers better noise protection and data security than wireless technologies. Moreover, if the constraints of cable length are not an issue, an Ethernet network is a reliable option which is easy and inexpensive to set up.
Consider now WiFi
Originally designed to connect office computers into LANs, Wi-Fi has become the go-to technology for short to medium-range wireless data communication and connection to the Internet.
WiFi users can ‘cut the cable’ imposed by an Ethernet cabled system. With WiFi you can be mobile and range farther since you no longer need to plug your devices (such as desktop or laptop computers) into a nearby wall outlet to access a network. Instead WiFi connects wirelessly, relying instead on radio waves in two main frequency bands (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) to talk to network devices. The 5 GHz signals are faster but their range is smaller than the 2.4 GHz transmission and they don’t penetrate walls or flooring as well. Hotels and cafes regularly offer free WiFi access to the Internet, saving customers on laptops or smartphones from eating into their personal cellular data allowance.
WiFi has evolved through a number of versions that deliver successive improvements in data rate, range, and security. WiFi 5 and 6 are the current versions, with upcoming WiFi 7 in the wings.
A WiFi network is the most cost-effective means of providing mobile broadband access. It is inexpensive, easy to install, expandable, fast, and has excellent data rates. A wide variety of devices can be made WiFi-capable permitting them to connect to each other or to the Internet. Many devices such as smartphones and tablets come with WiFi pre-installed.
But while the data rates for WiFi may be impressive, its range is not. A typical configuration might reach no further than 164 ft (or 50 m) indoors or 300 ft. (about 92 m) outdoors. Extenders, increased transceiver power, and directional antennas can help, but greater range comes at the expense of the data rate. To achieve wide-area mobile broadband coverage you need to look to cellular.
So how does Cellular help?
Cellular, in the form of 4G (also known as LTE) is what makes smartphones ‘smart’. The air interface for 4G phones was deliberately designed (with an eye to domestic consumers) as a broadband technology that could access the Internet, carry high-quality voice-over-IP calls, stream video content, and run diverse bandwidth-hungry applications such as social media services.
4G cellular comes with a combination of features unmatched by any other wireless technology. including voice and very high capacity data, better mobility with fast handover across the network, strong security, great resilience, and low power consumption. Also it is very fast, with an average network delay or latency that beats WiFi
Unlike WiFi, 4G comes with a host of built-in call and data services. The next–generation 5G cellular technology promises even higher data rates with blindingly fast network performance, capable of supporting self-driving commercial vehicles, remotely managed manufacturing, AI-controlled workflows etc. Public cellular coverage, thanks to the spread of commercial networks, is vast, especially in built-up areas. Increasingly companies are investing in their own private cellular networks enabling them to use standard cellular phones (or ruggedized versions) for broadband communications. Because cellular needs substantially more sites to cover a given geographical area, developing a cellular network can be a challenge. Do you build your own, rent space on a public network, or subscribe to a private industry network?
Open standard broadband technologies such as Ethernet, Wifi, and cellular offer fast and flexible connectivity and high-speed data options for extending the reach, reliability and quality of your business operations.